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Supreme Court restores Trump to Colorado primary ballot, rules on state powers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States Supreme Court ruled today on a case involving former President Trump. On the central finding, the ruling was unanimous. The justices say Colorado lacks the authority to disqualify Trump from the presidential ballot. Colorado and some other states had said Trump committed insurrection by trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat, which the Constitution would seem to prohibit. Joining us now to discuss all this in Studio 31 here in Washington is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, welcome back.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: So what did the court decide?

TOTENBERG: The court said that no state can remove Trump or any other candidate for federal office from the ballot. On that, the justices were unanimous.

INSKEEP: OK.

TOTENBERG: But beyond that, they were split 5 to 4, and the four said that the majority had decided way more than it should have. So just to recall, this case is about whether Section 3 of the 14th Amendment means what it says. And what it says is that no federal officer who has participated in an insurrection or rebellion against the United States may remain in office. And pursuant to that, several states have tried to throw him off the ballot, the first being Colorado. The unsigned majority opinion today, which was almost certainly, Steve, written by Chief Justice Roberts - it says that states cannot throw federal candidates off the ballot. And as I said, all nine justices agreed with that. But four justices, including Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett, said the majority opinion went way too far and decided far more than it should have.

INSKEEP: Let's get into that. What is the question here, where the majority of the court went farther than some of their colleagues would like?

TOTENBERG: Well, the majority said that the 14th Amendment has no enforcement mechanism and that the states can't substitute themselves in and make that mechanism. Only Congress can do that. And that would allow states only, if the federal government, through Congress, passed a law that said, you can remove federal officers from office who are insurrectionists or from the ballot. And as the unsigned majority opinion put it, were we to allow states to enact enforcement mechanisms, the result could well be that a single candidate would be declared ineligible in some states, but not in others, based on the same conduct, so that there would be a patchwork of eligibility across the country. Nothing in the Constitution requires that we endure such chaos.

INSKEEP: Now, the details here are things that we've discussed on MORNING EDITION. We've heard people arguing that this amendment is self-executing, which seems to argue that anybody can enforce it. It's kind of obvious what it should mean, they say. The court is saying, no, actually, you need some act of Congress. At least that's the majority saying that. What do the others say?

TOTENBERG: They were really more like dissenters, I have to say, once you get past that threshold question of this individual case in this moment.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: Justice Barrett wrote that it was enough to rule that states lack the power to enforce Section 3. And she said that there was no need to address the complicated question whether federal legislation is the exclusive vehicle through which Section 3 can be enforced. In my judgment, she wrote, this is not the time to amplify disagreement with stridency. The court has settled a politically charged issue in the volatile season of a presidential election. Particularly in this circumstance, writings on the court should turn the national temperature down, not up. For present purposes, our differences are far less important than our unanimity. And then she reiterated that all nine justices agree on the outcome.

INSKEEP: OK - on the outcome, but not on the details, particularly this detail of who could disqualify...

TOTENBERG: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Donald Trump from the ballot if anyone could. What do the three liberals on the court have to say?

TOTENBERG: Justice Sotomayor, writing for the three, said that the court had imposed restrictions on legislation that could involve a future election, even assuming that Congress were to say, yeah, we're going to enact an enforcement piece of legislation. The court said you have to do very specific things. And Justice Sotomayor said that the insurrectionist provision of the 14th Amendment serves as an important but rarely needed role in our democracy. The men who wrote it wanted to ensure that those who had participated in that insurrection and made it possible future insurrections could not return to prominent roles. Today, the majority goes beyond the necessities of this case to limit how Section 3 can bar an insurrectionist from becoming president.

INSKEEP: OK, so lots of arguments about how this amendment should have been enforced. But the bottom line is the judges managed unanimity today in saying that Donald Trump cannot be barred from the ballot in Colorado and presumably from other states. Nina, thanks so much.

TOTENBERG: Thanks so much. We'll be back here for immunity.

INSKEEP: I can't wait.

TOTENBERG: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.