Something the nation has never seen before began unfolding in a Denver courtroom Monday morning: a trial to determine whether a major party’s likely presidential nominee is eligible to run for president.
The trial, filed in September by six Colorado voters with the help of a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, argues that former President Donald J. Trump is ineligible to hold office again under the Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. This section disqualifies anyone “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the Constitution after taking an oath to support it.
The plaintiffs claim that Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election – namely his actions before and while his supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to prevent the certification of Joseph’s victory R. Biden Jr. – are satisfactory. the criteria for disqualification.
Sarah B. Wallace, the state district court judge who presided over the case, rejected several requests by Mr. Trump and the Colorado Republican State Central Committee in recent weeks to dismiss the case without a trial.
Judge Wallace also on Monday rejected an appeal asking her to recuse herself because she donated to an organization that opposes Republican candidates in Colorado – a donation that Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign fervently highlighted. She said she had no opinion on the legal issues related to this case.
In an opening statement Monday, Eric Olson, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said his team would argue that Jan. 6 was “an insurrection against the Constitution” and that Mr. Trump engaged in that insurrection.
Mr. Olson ran through the familiar narrative of Mr. Trump’s speech to his supporters on the morning of Jan. 6 and the storming of the Capitol that followed. He reminded the court that Mr. Trump did not call the crowd back for hours.
“We are here because Trump claims, after all this, that he has the right to be president again,” he said. “But our Constitution, our nation’s common charter, says he can’t do it.”
Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Scott Gessler, said his team would argue that “engaging” in an insurrection required more than “mere incitement by words.” He said Mr. Trump had never called for violence and had urged his supporters to act “peacefully and patriotically” — comments that had been preemptively noted by Mr. Olson, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
Mr. Olson said using the phrase just once did not outweigh the rest of a speech that repeatedly called on people to “fight.”
Siding with Mr. Trump, Mr. Gessler argued that it would be “undemocratic” to deny him the chance to run and unprecedented for a court to find a presidential candidate ineligible under the 14th Amendment.
If the legal analysis is anything close, Mr. Gessler said, “the rule of democracy says we err on the side of letting people vote.”
Judge Wallace presented nine topics which will be addressed during the trial, which is expected to last all week. They include whether Section 3 of the 14th Amendment applies to presidents; what “committed” and “insurrection” mean in this article; whether Mr. Trump’s actions fit these definitions; and whether the amendment is “self-executing” – in other words, whether it can be applied without specific action by Congress identifying to whom it should be applied.
These questions have been debated since the Jan. 6 attack, particularly since Mr. Trump announced he was running again for president, but there is little precedent to answer them. The 14th Amendment was ratified shortly after the Civil War, and the disqualification clause was initially applied to people who had fought for the Confederacy. Courts have rarely had the opportunity to assess its modern application, and never in a case of this magnitude.
Some prominent constitutionalists, including conservative law professors William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen in an academic articleand conservative former judge J. Michael Luttig and liberal law professor Laurence H. Tribe in The Atlantic — argued that the clause applied to Mr. Trump.
But that view is far from universal among legal scholars, and several have told The New York Times in recent months that the issues are complex.
The court’s list of topics also calls for a discussion of Section 3 of the 20th Amendment, which governs what happens if a new president and vice president are not “qualified” by the time they are expected to take office .
The article says, in part, that “Congress may by law provide for the case in which neither a President-elect nor a Vice-President-elect is qualified.”
Mr. Trump’s lawyers say that means only Congress can impose the constitutional qualifications for the presidency. The plaintiffs’ lawyers rejected this argument in a brief last weekasserting that the amendment’s “plain language” — which refers to “president-elect” — applies only to someone already elected and has nothing to do with states’ ability to evaluate candidates’ qualifications .
The Colorado lawsuit is one of several efforts across the country to remove Mr. Trump from the ballot under the 14th Amendment. Oral arguments in a Minnesota case are set to begin Thursday, and lawsuits have also been filed New Hampshire And Michigan. Separately, California Democratic lawmakers asked their state’s attorney general last month to seek an opinion from the court on Mr. Trump’s eligibility.
Whatever verdicts are reached in these cases, they will not be final. The losing side will almost certainly appeal these decisions, and the Supreme Court — which has a 6-3 conservative majority, including three justices appointed by Mr. Trump — will likely have the final say.