Late Tuesday, a divided Colorado Supreme Court issued a ruling that has made global headlines:
In this appeal from a district court proceeding under the Colorado Election Code, the supreme court considers whether former President Donald J. Trump may appear on the Colorado Republican presidential primary ballot in 2024. A majority of the court holds that President Trump is disqualified from holding the office of President under Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Because he is disqualified, it would be a wrongful act under the Election Code for the Colorado Secretary of State to list him as a candidate on the presidential primary ballot. The court stays its ruling until January 4, 2024, subject to any further appellate proceedings.
On its face, this decision, even if it withstands a review by the US Supreme Court, would be unlikely to change the 2024 presidential race since Colorado has been won by Democrats in the last three presidential elections, including 2020 by a sizeable margin.
However, similar cases seeking to disqualify Mr. Trump on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment have been brought in more than half of the states, some of which are expected to be competitive contests crucial to the national outcome. If Colorado’s ruling stands, the ramifications for the election and for the country could be seismic.
Explaining the case
Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment states:
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868; Section 3 was originally intended to prevent former Confederate officials from gaining power in the reconstructed government following the Civil War. Known as the “disqualification clause,” it prevents individuals who have previously held public office from holding office if they participate in an “insurrection or rebellion” against the US. Congress last used the clause in 1919 to refuse to seat a socialist congressman accused of having given aid and comfort to Germany during the First World War.
However, the statement specifies current and former federal, state, and military officials, and has never been used against a president.
A district court judge ruled in November that Mr. Trump had in fact “engaged in insurrection” but said the disqualification clause did not apply to the presidency, meaning he could remain on the primary ballot. The Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed a similar lawsuit on November 8, ruling that the courts and election officials did not have the authority to block Republicans from offering Mr. Trump as a candidate in the primary.
A New Hampshire judge previously dismissed a similar case on procedural grounds as well. And in Michigan, a judge ruled that the state’s top election official could not remove Mr. Trump’s name from the primary ballot, a decision the plaintiffs have appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.
The Colorado case hinges on three questions:
- Does Section 3 apply to the presidency?
- Did Mr. Trump’s actions before and on January 6 constitute “engaging in insurrection or rebellion”?
- And can election officials or the courts deem a person ineligible without specific action by Congress or the courts so identifying this person?
Constitutional experts have said that the answers are not simple or self-evident. For example, an academic article by two conservative law professors concluded, “It is unquestionably fair to say that Trump ‘engaged in’ the Jan. 6 insurrection through both his actions and his inaction,” but others have argued the opposite.
A spokesman for Mr. Trump called the 4–3 ruling “completely flawed” and said the campaign would swiftly appeal to the Supreme Court. If it does so, Mr. Trump would likely remain on the state primary ballot while legal proceedings continue.
Dissenting judges on the Colorado Supreme Court argued that the state’s election code is a faulty avenue for determining guilt of insurrection, an allegation for which Mr. Trump has never been criminally charged, and warned that the ruling could violate his due process rights. One wrote, “Even if we are convinced that a candidate committed horrible acts in the past—dare I say, engaged in insurrection—there must be procedural due process before we can declare that individual disqualified from holding public office.”
Numerous Republican leaders responded:
- Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel called the ruling “election interference.”
- House Speaker Mike Johnson called it “nothing but a thinly veiled partisan attack.”
- Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has staked his presidential campaign on his opposition to Mr. Trump, said the ruling was “probably premature” because Trump has not been tried for inciting insurrection.
- Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, also running for president, stated: “We don’t need to have judges making these decisions, we need voters to make these decisions.”
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another of Mr. Trump’s primary rivals, attacked what he saw as judicial overreach: “The Left invokes ‘democracy’ to justify its use of power, even if it means abusing judicial power to remove a candidate from the ballot based on spurious legal grounds. SCOTUS should reverse.”
- Vivek Ramaswamy, another Republican primary candidate, pledged to withdraw his name from the Colorado primary ballot and encouraged his opponents to do the same.
The foundational issue
As the leader of a nonpartisan ministry, my purpose today is not to offer a personal opinion or endorse a political candidate or party. Rather, I’d like us to reflect on a foundational issue central to this story.
All seven judges on the Colorado Supreme Court were appointed by Democratic governors. Perhaps you believe that the majority acted unfairly in a partisan fashion. In this view, they abused their power to bar Mr. Trump from the ballot on the basis of allegations for which he has not been criminally charged. If a court can take such a preemptive step, could other judges take similar actions in the future to unfairly prevent candidates from running for office, undermining our electoral system?
Conversely, perhaps you believe that Mr. Trump did in fact commit insurrection on January 6 and that the Constitution should be invoked to prevent him from returning to office. In this view, the Colorado judges properly protected our electoral system as Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment would intend.
Here’s my point: either position is a dramatic symptom of partisan divisions that threaten our future as a democracy.
If it is plausible in the minds of many Americans that our courts could be weaponized to keep citizens from voting for their preferred candidates, distrust of our judicial and democratic processes will significantly undermine their functions and the legitimacy of their results. Conversely, if it is plausible in the minds of many Americans that our former president, currently leading President Biden in polling for the 2024 election, is an insurrectionist who should be constitutionally barred from office, distrust of his election (should he prevail) will significantly undermine his ability to lead our country effectively.
We have not been here before. But in a culture that has jettisoned objective truth for personal opinion, perception can become reality and the trust in our governmental systems so crucial to a functioning democracy is imperiled.
Three biblical responses
I plan to say more about this vital issue in tomorrow’s Daily Article. For today, let’s close by taking three biblical steps together.
First, let’s reaffirm our commitment to objective truth as conveyed most fully in the word of God.
Such a commitment requires us to respond to the Colorado ruling as dispassionately and objectively as possible. Scripture enjoins us: “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). We should therefore pray with David, “Lead me in your truth and teach me” (Psalm 25:5). And we should seek God’s wisdom as we interpret today’s news through the prism of facts and Scripture rather than opinions and assumptions.
Second, let’s respond to this issue in ways that honor our Lord.
Whatever your position on the Colorado ruling, Donald Trump, or any other political issue, please remember that you are first and foremost the witness of the Lord Jesus (Acts 1:8), his “ambassador” to your lost culture (2 Corinthians 5:20). We can win arguments and lose souls. We can defend what we believe to be true with such divisive animosity that we drive people further from our Lord.
As we gather with family and friends over Christmas, “keeping the main thing the main thing” should be our purpose and prayer.
Third, let’s renew our commitment to pray for our nation and her people and leaders.
No country’s future is guaranteed. Accordingly, we are taught to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings . . . for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). The more we disagree with our elected and judicial leaders, the more we must pray for them.
Specifically, ask God to lead our leaders to submit to his word (Hebrews 4:12) and the power of his Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) so that they lead in truth with servant hearts (John 13:14–15). Ask his Spirit to use this issue and other partisan conflicts to reveal our national need for a power higher than our democracy. Pray that he will guide your words and witness as you interact with others on this and other divisive subjects over the coming days.
And most of all, pray for a transforming spiritual movement that would draw our people out of our secularist, relativistic, broken culture into his providential purpose and blessing.
The psalmist proclaimed, “The eye of the Lᴏʀᴅ is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:18). In response, let us testify, “Our soul waits for the Lᴏʀᴅ; he is our help and our shield” (v. 20). Then we can say, “Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name” (v. 21). And we can pray, “Let your steadfast love, O Lᴏʀᴅ, be upon us, even as we hope in you” (v. 22).
How fully will you “hope” in him today?