Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling on Trump: An affront to democratic norms, or democracy’s final hope?

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On 19 December, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 verdict that former US president Donald Trump was ineligible to run again for the presidency of the United States. They cited the US Constitution’s insurrection clause and removed him from the state’s presidential primary ballot, with the ruling taking effect on 4 January to allow for appeals.

Clearly, this action is bold, and pushes at the bounds of judicial independence from politics. However, while this contentious decision may be an affront to democracy for some, is it also democracy’s final hope? There are certainly many American citizens who view Mr Trump with scorn. The twice-impeached, one-term former president repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 election and Joe Biden’s victory, culminating in his alleged sending of a violent mob into the heart of the US Capitol on 6 January. But is Mr Trump’s potential threat to American democracy, not to mention American stability at home and abroad, justification for removing him from the equation altogether?

The Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling is the first ever use of Section 3 of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment to disqualify a presidential candidate. The measure was ratified after the American Civil War to block secessionists from returning to previous government roles once Confederate states rejoined the Union.

During the Civil War, the Confederate leadership strived to rend in twain the very fabric of the burgeoning American republic and forge a new state, rooted in an illegal constitution, governed by wayward rogues and driven by industrial human slave labour. Moreover, those Confederate insurrections instigated a cataclysmic war that remains by far the US’s bloodiest, with well over half a million dead, countless more injured, numerous towns and villages laid waste, a generation of American families devastated by fetid violence. Few if any Americans would argue Mr Trump is comparable to those Confederate turncoats.

However, there still remains within the American psyche, or at least within the psyche of the Democratic Party and among many of the more mild-mannered centrist Republicans, a deep trauma wound inflicted by the destabilising damage of Mr Trump’s presidency.

There still remains… a deep trauma wound inflicted by the destabilising damage of Mr Trump’s presidency

This verdict in Colorado is, arguably, an affront to democracy. It appears to undermine that most basic and fundamental principle ordained within the ancient Greek conception of democratic governance: that any citizen of the nation, may have an equal right to serve and vote in that nation’s government. But the US is not a pure democracy. It is a republic. It has laws that govern who may serve in civil and military offices, and who may not.

Section 3 of the 14th Amendment writes that no person shall hold any government office, who has previously taken an oath to support the US Constitution, but then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same.” If Mr Trump had engaged in overt espionage against the US on the behest of the Russian or Chinese governments, as some double agents during the Cold War were known to have done, the decision to exclude him from the ballot would be clear and just. But Mr Trump has committed no action comparable to that. He encouraged, aided and facilitated a deadly disruption of Congress on 6 January. But is that action so reprehensible as to disbar the American people from casting myriad millions of votes for their preferred leader – Mr Trump – as they did in 2020, and would almost certainly do again in 2024 if given the chance?

However, while the prospect of the ruling remaining in place raises some interesting questions, the verdict in Colorado is highly unlikely to remain. It will probably be cast out by the US Supreme Court, where there is a 6-3 conservative supra-majority, three of those justices appointed by Mr Trump himself. Those justices will surely throw out the Colorado ruling. And they will throw out any other ruling brought against Mr Trump or his Republican Party candidates.

[The ruling] will add fuel to Mr Trump’s bonfire of populist, post-truth rhetoric

So what impact will this ruling have, when all is said and done? Evidently, it can do nothing but harm the Democrats. It will add fuel to Mr Trump’s bonfire of populist, post-truth rhetoric. For years, Mr Trump has been taunting the establishment, and now they have thrown him fresh bait. This ruling can be held up by Mr Trump, just as with his criminal trials, as an example of the so-called ‘deep state’ coming after him. Laughable as some of this Manhattan billionaire’s claims at oppression and personal hardship are, they still carry potency in the US, where whichever candidate can most effectively portray themselves as the underdog, will cut through and win.

It may therefore be the case, that in their attempt to save US democracy from Mr Trump’s clutches, these justices in Colorado may have played a small but noteworthy role in bringing Mr Trump that bit closer to his goal: reclaiming the presidency.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

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