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Minnesota justices appear skeptical that states should decide Trump's eligibility for the ballot

Donald Trump
Posted at 1:20 PM, Nov 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-02 15:20:35-04

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical Thursday that states have the authority to block former President Donald Trump from the ballot, with some suggesting that Congress is best positioned to decide whether his role in the January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol should prevent him from running.

Justices sharply questioned an attorney representing Minnesota voters who had sued to keep Trump off the state ballot under the rarely used “insurrection” clause of the U.S. Constitution. Citing Congress’ role in certifying presidential electors and its ability to impeach, several justices said it seemed as if questions of eligibility should be settled there.

“And those all seem to suggest there is a fundamental role for Congress to play and not the states because of that,” Chief Justice Natalie E. Hudson said. "It’s that interrelation that I think is troubling, that suggests that this is a national matter for Congress to decide.”

The oral arguments before the state Supreme Court were unfolding during an unprecedented week, as courts in two states were debating a question that even the nation's highest court has never before settled — the meaning of the insurrection clause in the 14th Amendment, whether it should bar Trump from the ballot and whether states are even allowed to decide the question.

The Minnesota lawsuit and another in Colorado, where a similar hearing is playing out, are among several filed around the country to bar Trump from state ballots in 2024 over his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, an assault intended to halt Congress' certification of Joe Biden's 2020 win. The Colorado and Minnesota cases are furthest along, putting one or both on an expected path to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Minnesota lawsuit went directly to the state Supreme Court, where justices on Thursday consistently questioned whether it was appropriate for states to determine a candidate's eligibility to run for president. Hudson also said she was concerned about the possibility "for just chaos” if multiple states decided the issue differently.

"So, should we do it even if we could do it and we can do it?” she said.

An attorney representing Trump, Nicholas Nelson, said the question of eligibility to run for president under the “insurrection” section of the amendment should not even be before the court, calling it a political question. Trump's team asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.

“There's nothing for the courts to decide about the eligibility question,” Nelson told the justices.

The central argument in the Minnesota and Colorado cases are the same — that Section Three of the 14th Amendment bars from holding office anyone who previously swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection” against it.

In the Minnesota case, the plaintiffs are asking the state’s highest court to declare that Trump is disqualified and direct the secretary of state to keep him off the ballot for the state’s March 5 primary. They want the court to order an evidentiary hearing, which would mean further proceedings and delay a final resolution, something Trump’s legal team opposes.

“The events of January 6, 2021, amounted to an insurrection or a rebellion under Section 3: a violent, coordinated effort to storm the Capitol to obstruct and prevent the Vice President of the United States and the United States Congress from fulfilling their constitutional roles by certifying President Biden's victory, and to illegally extend then-President Trump’s tenure in office,” the petitioners wrote.

Trump’s lawyers acknowledged in their filings that the question of whether he “is suited to hold the Presidency has been the defining political controversy of our national life” for the last several years. They’ve also argued that while the events of Jan. 6 devolved into a riot, they were not an insurrection in the constitutional sense.

Trump's lawyers noted that the Republican former president has never been charged in any court with insurrection — although he does face state and federal criminal charges for his attempts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden, a Democrat.

“Both the federal Constitution and Minnesota law place the resolution of this political issue where it belongs: the democratic process, in the hands of either Congress or the people of the United States,″ they wrote in one of their filings.

Some of Trump’s main arguments are that Minnesota and federal law don’t allow courts to strike him from the ballot and that the insurrection clause doesn’t apply to presidents, anyway.

“The riot that occurred at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was terrible. The January 6 rioters entered the Capitol for a few hours and fought with police. But as awful as the melee was, and as disturbing as the rioters’ actions were, it was not a war upon the United States,” they wrote in an earlier filing. “Ultimately, Congress counted the electoral votes early the next morning. No evidence shows that the rioters — even the worst among them — made war on the United States or tried to overthrow the government.”

The insurrection clause does not mention the office of president directly but instead includes somewhat vague language saying it applies to the “elector of president and vice president.” That was an issue debated during the Colorado case earlier this week, when a law professor, relying on research into the thinking at the time the amendment was adopted, testified that it was indeed intended to apply to presidential candidates.

It also was raised Thursday in arguments before Minnesota's high court, with one justice calling it “weird” that the word president was not included in Section Three.

Trial underway to ban Trump from Colorado ballot in 2024

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This story has been corrected to show there’s a hearing, not a trial, in Colorado.

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Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Steve Karnowski in St. Paul contributed to this report.

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