A group of voters in Colorado filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to keep former President Donald Trump off the ballot in the state, arguing he is disqualified from holding public office under a rarely used provision of the 14th Amendment.
The suit was filed in state court in Denver by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) on behalf of six Republican and unaffiliated voters who are challenging Trump's listing as a candidate on the 2024 Republican presidential primary ballot and any future ballot.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare that Trump, the current frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, is disqualified for public office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment and therefore constitutionally ineligible to appear on any Colorado ballot. They also want the court to block Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold from taking any action that would allow Trump access to the ballot.
"Four years after taking an oath to 'preserve, protect and defend' the Constitution as President of the United States, Trump tried to overthrow the results of the 2020 election, leading to a violent insurrection at the United States Capitol to stop the lawful transfer of power to his successor," the 115-page lawsuit states. "By instigating this unprecedented assault on the American constitutional order, Trump violated his oath and disqualified himself under the Fourteenth Amendment from holding public office, including the Office of the President."
What Section 3 of the 14th Amendment says
Ratified in 1868 after the Civil War, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment states that "no person shall be a senator or representative in Congress" or "hold any office, civil or military," if they, after taking an oath to support the Constitution, "engaged in insurrection, or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof."
The disqualification provision was meant to keep former Confederate officers and officials from holding public office again unless they received permission from Congress to do so. The measure has seldom been invoked over the last 150 years, and never against a former president. But in September 2022, a New Mexico state court judge ordered Couy Griffin, founder of the group "Cowboys for Trump," to be stripped of his position as a county commissioner and prohibited from holding any federal or state office under Section 3 because he "engaged" in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Now, with the 2024 presidential election season in full swing and Trump facing federal and state criminal charges related to the 2020 election, the idea of using Section 3 as a vehicle to keep the former president out of the White House is gaining traction. Two conservative legal scholars argued in a recent law review article that the measure disqualifies Trump because of his participation "in the attempted overthrow of the 2020 presidential election." Former Judge Michael Luttig, who is widely respected among conservatives, has argued the Constitution prohibits Trump from being president.
The former president has dismissed the effort to keep him off the ballot in 2024, writing on his website Truth Social on Monday that it is a "trick" used by his political opponents to help President Biden win a second term. Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said in a statement to CBS News on Wednesday that "there is no legal basis for this effort."
"The people who are pursuing this absurd conspiracy theory and political attack on President Trump are stretching the law beyond recognition much like the political prosecutors in New York, Georgia, and DC," he said, referencing the criminal cases the former president is facing in those three jurisdictions. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all criminal counts he is charged with.
Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state, said in a statement that she looks forward "to the Colorado Court's substantive resolution of the issues, and am hopeful that this case will provide guidance to election officials on Trump's eligibility as a candidate for office." Her office noted that state law is "unclear on how to consider the requirements of the United States Constitution in determining whether a candidate is eligible for office, including the language of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment."
The Colorado lawsuit
The case brought in Colorado will test the force of Section 3 and appears to be one of the first that aims to disqualify Trump from holding public office again. It could also land the question of Trump's eligibility to run in 2024 before the U.S. Supreme Court eventually.
The dispute hinges on what the six Colorado voters say were the former president's efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss and interfere with the transfer of presidential power, which culminated in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Among the GOP plaintiffs are former U.S. Rep. Claudine Cmarada, who represented Rhode Island in the House but now lives in Colorado, and Norma Anderson, the former majority leader of the state senate.
"President Trump was the mob's leader, and the mob was his weapon," the lawsuit states.
The voters argue in their suit that the Jan. 6 attack — when a mob of Trump's supporters breached the Capitol building while lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence convened to count state electoral votes — constituted an "insurrection" under the 14th Amendment, one that Trump allegedly engaged in.
They note that the Jan. 6 assault has been referred to as an insurrection by all three branches of government, and Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House on a single article charging him with "incitement of insurrection." The former president was acquitted by the Senate, though seven Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in voting that the former president was "guilty" on the impeachment charge.
"President Trump was indisputably the leader of the January 6th mob," the lawsuit states. "Without his false claims of election fraud, coercive tactics, inflammatory rhetoric, mob mobilization, promotion of political violence, instructions to march on the Capitol, and decision to pour fuel on the fire rather than tell the mob to disperse, the attack on the Capitol would not have happened."
Colorado law states that a person is not eligible to be a candidate for office unless they fully meet the qualifications of that office under the Constitution. But because the voters believe Trump is disqualified under the 14th Amendment, they argue that he doesn't meet the qualifications for the office of the presidency.
"There is an urgent public interest in promptly resolving whether Trump is constitutionally eligible to serve as president in advance of the approaching primary election," they said in their suit.
Colorado's Republican primary is slated for March 5 – Super Tuesday. The contest comes one day after Trump's trial in a federal case involving the alleged scheme to thwart the transfer of presidential power is set to begin in Washington, D.C. No candidates have qualified for Colorado's presidential primary ballot so far, according to the secretary of state's office.
CREW, the organization behind the suit, indicated it will pursue more cases challenging Trump's eligibility to run for president.
"It won't be the last action that we bring," Noah Bookbinder, the group's president and chief executive officer, told reporters. "It's going to be an evolving process."