Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Reflections on the Supreme Court’s Oral Argument in Trump v. Anderson

The oral argument in Trump v. Anderson indicated that the United States Supreme Court would reverse the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision disqualifying Donald Trump from the ballot.[1] In fact, the Court’s decision will likely be unanimous for three reasons.

1.    Affirming the Colorado Supreme Court's decision would enable states to disqualify different candidates and thus create a lack of uniformity among the states regarding which candidates voters could select. 

If the Supreme Court affirmed the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision, then Texas and other conservative states could disqualify President Biden from the ballot based on whatever subjective definition of insurrection they adopted, while liberal states could likewise disqualify Donald Trump. Imagine living in a world where, for example, ten states prohibited its citizens from voting for Trump while eight states prohibited its citizens from voting for Biden. Such a result would disenfranchise millions of voters and, as Chief Justice Roberts stated, enable a handful of states to decide the presidential election. Nothing could be more anti-democratic, at “war with the thrust of the Fourteenth Amendment,” and anathema to a society that values free and fair elections.[2]

Indeed, the justices recognized that affirming the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision would be far-reaching and fundamentally anti-democratic. For example, Justice Alito asked Jason Murray, the respondent’s attorney (and an outstanding lawyer), whether a state court could exclude from the ballot a presidential candidate that the court did not prefer simply because the candidate was leading in the polls. Murray answered in the affirmative – and that all but sunk Colorado’s argument.

The justices also suggested that the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment’s original purpose. As Chief Justice Roberts emphasized, the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to expand federal power and restrict state power. Thus, to conclude that the states have the power to disqualify federal candidates – particularly where the disqualification is predicated on an ambiguous provision – would be incongruous with the Fourteenth Amendment’s original purpose. For these and other reasons, Justice Kagan and Justice Barrett suggested that the question of whether a former president is disqualified for insurrection “sounds awfully national,” which is consistent with Section Five’s text, which gives Congress, not the states, the power to implement Section Three, and with the principle that there be uniformity among the states regarding who voters may select for president.[3]   

2.    Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment is ambiguous and should not be construed to frustrate democracy.

Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Jackson explained that, unlike the Constitution’s age and nationality requirements, which are categorical and unambiguous, Section Three was susceptible to different interpretations and therefore should not be construed in an anti-democratic manner. For example, Justice Kavanaugh noted that the word “insurrection,” is broad and that Section Three contained no information concerning the procedures needed to determine whether a president was an insurrectionist. Likewise, Justice Jackson expressed concern that the President of the United States may not be an “officer of the United States” because the plain language of Section Three does not include the word “President,” therefore suggesting that the president is not within Section Three’s purview.

Given the fact that Section Three is ambiguous, why, as Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Jackson emphasized, should the Court reach an outcome that frustrates rather than facilitates democratic choice? And how should the Court resolve the issue regarding a candidate’s disqualification if states adopt different definitions of “insurrection,” adopt different evidentiary rules, and adopt different standards of proof? Colorado’s attorneys had no satisfactory answer.

3.    Affirming the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision would enable one state to decide a presidential election.

Justice Kagan rightly emphasized that, if the Court affirmed the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision, one state (or a handful, as Chief Justice Robers noted) could decide the presidential election. To be sure, some if not many states would subsequently disqualify Trump from the ballot, making the Colorado Supreme Court the primary decision maker in the presidential election. Additionally, imagine if a presidential election was remarkably close and would be decided by the outcome in one state, but that state had disqualified Donald Trump from the ballot. This would give the presidency to Trump’s opponent and disenfranchise every voter in that state who supported Trump. Of course, some state courts could decide to distinguish the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision and therefore keep Donald Trump on the ballot, but even under this scenario, there would exist precisely the disuniformity that would compromise democratic choice.

Ultimately, the oral argument in Trump v. Anderson suggests that the Supreme Court will unanimously reverse the Colorado Supreme Court’s silly decision.

What was most disappointing was to see well-respected constitutional law scholars, such as J. Michael Luttig, a former judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and Laurence Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School, so vehemently advocating for affirmance of the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision. Judge Luttig argued that the decision was unassailable, that Section Three’s text was unambiguous, and along with Professor Tribe, that affirming the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision was vital to preserving democracy.[4] To make matters worse, these scholars relied heavily on the Report of the January 6 Committee, even though the January 6 hearings included only committee members that were biased against Trump and even though the committee adhered to none of the evidentiary standards that a trial – and due process – requires. The fact that Judge Luttig and Professor Tribe relied on this report and championed a decision by the Colorado Supreme Court that, given the text and history of Section Three, was so obviously wrong, is troubling.

Lest there be any doubt, imagine a world in which states could disqualify candidates based on different interpretations of Section Three, different evidentiary standards, and different burdens of proof. The result would be to allow one or more states to determine the presidential election based on nothing more than disdain for a presidential candidate, and to disenfranchise millions of voters by prohibiting them from voting for their preferred candidate. That would be as anti-democratic as you can get.

Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized this and is poised to unanimously reverse the Colorado Supreme Court’s silly decision. Democracy depends on them doing so – and they will.

 

[1] See Trump v. Anderson, Oral Argument, available at: Trump's 2024 ballot eligibility being weighed by Supreme Court | full audio (youtube.com)

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] See, e.g., Enormously Important Protection of Democracy: Tribe and Luttig on CO Barring Trump from Ballot (Dec. 21, 2023), available at: ‘Enormously important protection of democracy’: Tribe & Luttig on CO barring Trump from ballot - YouTube

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2024/02/reflections-on-the-supreme-courts-oral-argument-in-trump-v-anderson.html

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