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Donald Trump blocked from presidential primary ballot by Colorado Supreme Court

The decision, which may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, comes as state elections officials must set the primary ballot by Jan. 5
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Donald Trump cannot appear on the state’s Republican presidential primary ballot next year because he engaged in an insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.

The stunning 4-3 decision is almost certain to be immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and is likely to have national ripple effects.

The Colorado Supreme Court stayed its ruling until Jan. 4 to give the U.S. Supreme Court time to weigh in.

Colorado’s presidential primary ballot must be set by Jan. 5. Ballots start being mailed to military and overseas voters on Jan. 20. Election Day is March 5.

All seven justices on the Colorado Supreme Court were appointed by Democratic governors.

Chief Justice Brian Boatright and Justices Maria Berkenkotter and Carlos Samour Jr. dissented.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal political nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., sued Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold in September on behalf of a group of Colorado Republican and unaffiliated voters, arguing that the former president shouldn’t be allowed on the state’s presidential primary ballot because of his role in the Jan. 6 attack.

The nonprofit, which doesn’t reveal its donors, claimed that Trump violated the so-called “insurrection clause” in the U.S. Constitution.

Section 3 of the 14th Amendment bars “officers of the United States” who took an “oath … to support the Constitution of the United States” and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof” from holding federal or state office again.

The lawsuit was first heard in Denver District Court, where Judge Sarah Wallace ruled Nov. 17 that while Trump incited an insurrection on Jan. 6, he can still appear on Colorado’s 2024 Republican presidential primary ballot because he is not an “officer of the United States.”

“Part of the court’s decision is its reluctance to embrace an interpretation which would disqualify a presidential candidate without a clear, unmistakable indication that such is the intent of Section 3,” she wrote.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington appealed the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that a president is an “officer of the United States.” Trump’s 2024 campaign also appealed, seeking to invalidate Wallace’s finding that Trump incited an insurrection on the argument state courts don’t have the power to rule on 14th Amendment challenges.

The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on Dec. 6. The court’s justices seemed to struggle with whether the 14th Amendment applies to former presidents.

Justice Richard Gabriel said it seemed absurd that drafters of the 14th Amendment wouldn’t have meant it to apply to presidents. Justice Monica Márquez said in her readings on the case law, “I saw no rational reason for that type of an exclusion.”

But Samour said it seemed odd that the presidents and vice presidents were specifically called out in Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, the so-called insurrection clause.

“If it was so important that the president be included, why not spell it out?” he asked before packed chambers in downtown Denver, echoing the legal ambiguity on which the lower court’s ruling hinged.

Similar lawsuits seeking to block Trump from appearing on presidential primary ballots have been filed in other parts of the country, but none have been successful.

The plaintiffs in the Colorado case include Krista Kafer, a Republican activist and political commentator in Colorado; Norma Anderson, a Republican who was formerly the majority leader in the Colorado Senate; Michelle Priola, the wife of state Sen. Kevin Priola, who switched his party affiliation to Democratic from Republican in 2022; and Chris Castilian, former chief of staff for then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican.

Mario Nicolais, a Colorado Sun opinion columnist, is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

Griswold’s office took a neutral legal stance on the case. But after Wallace’s ruling last month, the Democrat, in TV appearances, expressed shock at the outcome.

“The idea that any official who would engage in insurrection would be barred from taking office except the presidency is incredibly surprising,” she said on MSNBC last month. “That basically means that the presidency is a get-out-of-jail free card for insurrection.”

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