Everything you need to know to understand the Supreme Court's decision in Anderson v. Trump

The Supreme Court has to decide whether Donald Trump can be removed from state ballots, but the complexities of the case need a lot of explanation.

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments On 14th Amendment And Trump
U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments On 14th Amendment And Trump / Julia Nikhinson/GettyImages
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What parts of the Constitution are most important here?

Trump's lawyers are almost exclusively concerned with the 14th Amendment in this case. They do reference Section 5, as it states that Congress has the power to enforce the rest of the Amendment, but they otherwise focus on the text of Section 3 and how it was applied in later court cases (see below).

However, Anderson et al refer to other parts of the Constitution to provide context for why they feel the state has the authority to enforce Section 3. Specifically, they reference Act II, Section 1, Clause 2, which grants states the authority to appoint electors "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct."

"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector."

Act II, Section 1, Clause 2

They argue that this gives the states the right to control how elections function up to the point where Congress counts the votes. This is a reasonable reading of this clause, as states do have broad authority over the election process. That is why the ballots in different states may include different candidates.

In addition, Anderson et al argue that Section 3 is effectively just a qualification for various political offices. In discussing this, the justices and lawyers frequently reference Article II, Section 1, Clause 5, which discussed presidential qualifications, and the 22nd Amendment. Neither is vital to know the details of, beyond the fact that there are Constitutionally-valid qualifications for the Presidency, which do not have explicit enforcement guidelines.

Are there precedents to fall back on?

When dealing with a fundamentally new situation, lawyers often rely on previous cases to guide them. Unless there is an extreme reason not to do so, the Courts will usually agree with the decisions that have been made before. However, decisions rendered by localized courts are generally considered less relevant than those made by the Supreme Court.

There are several cases that confront Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, but none have dared to take on a former President before. Even so, the lawyers and justices will have the context of those cases, so those who are trying to understand it should too.

In recent cases, the states of Georgia and Arizona have refused to entertain cases seeking to disqualify Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andy Biggs, and Paul Gosar. County commissioner Couy Griffin was removed from office by a New Mexico judge, but his case may be reopened pending the decision regarding Trump.

However, all of these cases are liable to be reconsidered based on what the Supreme Court decides. Because of that, they aren't really considered precedential. Instead, the court is looking at four major judicial rulings and/or acts of Congress, with a preference for those made around the same time as the Fourteenth Amendment.

Case of Davis

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson wanted to convict Confederate President Jefferson Davis of treason. It wasn't difficult to prove that he had committed treason, but Davis played an interesting card, which is considered vital to the current situation.

Jefferson Davis's team latched onto the 14th Amendment. They claimed that, since Section 3 of the 14th Amendment prevents those who engaged in insurrection or rebellion from holding public office, Davis couldn't be tried and punished again.

As part of their argument, they claimed that Section 3 was self-executing and that Davis had therefore already been punished for his part in the Civil War. While the quality of the double jeopardy argument is questionable, it provides important historical context for Trump's case.

"It will be agreed that it executes itself, acting propria vigore. It needs no legislation on the part of congress to give it effect."

Case of Davis

District Judge John Underwood rejected the argument, but Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase accepted it in an 1869 opinion. The US ended up dropping the case before it could be decided in the Supreme Court.

This is not necessarily a valid precedent, but it does provide a legal example of the belief that Section 3 was self-executing, condoned by a Supreme Court Chief Justice.

Griffin's Case

Griffin's Case is an interesting contrast to the Case of Davis because the major figures involved completely reversed their opinions.

In 1868, a man named Cassar Griffin was found guilty of attempted murder. However, he argued that the judge in his case, Judge Hugh W. Sheffey, should not have been able to preside over the case, because he should have been disqualified from the position due to Section 3.

Judge Underwood agreed with Griffin, explaining that Section 3 was self-executing. Justice Case disagreed.

"Now, it is obviously impossible to do this by a simple declaration, whether in the constitution or in an act of congress, that all persons included within a particular description shall not hold office. For, in the very nature of things, it must be ascertained what particular individuals are embraced by the definition, before any sentence of exclusion can be made to operate."

Griffin's Case

Because the Supreme Court Justice here argued that Section 3 could only come into effect if someone had been investigated and convicted, Trump's lawyers argue that a state cannot act on it without having some prior investigation and/or conviction.

However, in the oral arguments, Justice Sotomayor explained that Salmon Chase later disagreed with his stance here, also arguing that Jefferson Davis should never have the opportunity to become President because of his part in the Confederacy.

There are many complexities here, but it's key to know that two Reconstruction Era cases discussed Section 3, and both had one judge claim that it was self-executing while another disagreed. Neither are good quality precedents, but they are useful for historical context.

Enforcement Act of 1870

The Enforcement Act of 1870 is often seen as a law passed explicitly to stop the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-Black forces from terrorizing Black citizens. However, it also has a key application to Trump's case, as it detailed how the Reconstruction Amendments should be enforced.

The Act has 23 provisions, many of which were intended to explicitly criminalize those who disobeyed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. This demonstrated the belief that the Amendments were not enough in their own rights. Rather, many felt they needed to be supplemented with Congressional action.

Sections 14 and 15 specifically addressed Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, declaring that a person who was actively holding office, despite being ineligible due to insurrection, was guilty of a misdemeanor. The relevant District Attorney for their position was responsible for issuing a writ of quo warranto to remove them from office.

This followed the idea presented in Griffin's Case that the Fourteenth Amendment needed external authorization to be enacted. However, this only addressed those who were currently holding offices they were not entitled to. It did not discuss how to prevent someone from taking office to begin with.

Hassan v. Colorado

One of the Supreme Court Justices presiding over Donald Trump's case made a ruling in a somewhat similar case in 2012, which was mentioned in the Colorado Supreme Court's decision. This was the case of Hassan v. Colorado, where the Colorado Secretary of State removed a candidate from the state's ballot because he was not eligible to hold office.

Abdul Hassan decided to run for president in 2011, and the Federal Election Committee found that he was allowed to run for president and even receive campaign funds. However, he was not eligible to become the President because he was from Guyana. Per the Constitution, only a "natural born Citizen" can hold the Office.

Because he was allowed to run but not to hold the position, Colorado did not allow him to be on their state's ballot. Hassan sued the state, but Neil Gorsuch, then presiding over the US Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, ruled that Colorado had done no wrong.

"Even if Article II properly holds him ineligible to assume the office of president, Mr. Hassan claims it was still an unlawful act of discrimination for the state to deny him a place on the ballot. But, as the magistrate judge’s opinion makes clear and we expressly reaffirm here, a state’s legitimate interest in protecting the integrity and practical functioning of the political process permits it to exclude from the ballot candidates who are constitutionally prohibited from assuming office. "

Neil Gorsuch, Hassan v. Colorado

In the words of one of the Supreme Justices himself, the state of Colorado has every right to take candidates off the ballot if they cannot hold the office they are running for. Following this precedent, it's hard to argue that a presidential candidate who is blocked from holding office under the 14th Amendment cannot be removed from the ballot. The only question should be whether former President Trump is beholden to the 14th Amendment at all.

It should be noted that, while these four events are all relevant to the case at hand, none are at the level of binding precedents. There is no obligation for the Supreme Court to agree with any of these rulings, and their decision will undoubtedly be more significant to the future than any that came before them.

Slide 5 examines the four main points of controversy in Anderson v. Trump.