Applying the Insurrection Clause to the presidency would have given rogue states too much power.
By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey
February 7, 2024, in the Wall Street Journal
The case of Trump v. Anderson, in which Donald Trump asks the Supreme Court to reverse a ruling that bars him from Colorado’s presidential ballot, raises many complicated legal and factual questions. The justices should ignore them and decide a simple one: Does Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which disqualifies certain former officeholders who have “engaged in insurrection,” apply to the presidency?
As Michael Mukasey has argued in these pages, the answer is no. Those who are covered by the Insurrection Clause are specifically disqualified from serving as members of Congress or the Electoral College—not as president or vice president. They are also barred from state office and from “any office, civil or military, under the United States.” But “any office” refers to appointive posts such as judges, generals and cabinet secretaries, and “officers of the United States” are appointed, not elected.
This raises an obvious question: Why would the authors of the 14th Amendment exclude the presidency? For two compelling and practical reasons, which reinforce Section 3’s plain meaning.
First, by the time the amendment was ratified in 1868, the states had largely adopted a system whereby presidential electors, instead of being appointed by state legislatures, were chosen by popular vote after committing to a particular candidate. If no former Confederates (or more modern insurrectionists) could stand for election as presidential electors, there would be little chance of an insurrectionist president. (As Mr. Mukasey also observed, if the president were covered, there would be no reason to cover presidential electors, who wouldn’t be able to elect an insurrectionist if they wanted to.)
Second, there was no way to cover the presidency without violating the Constitution’s established federalism principles, which require states to act uniformly when dealing with federal laws and institutions. These principles are at the root of several constitutional provisions, including the equal representation of states in the Senate, the Supremacy Clause and the Full Faith and Credit Clause. These provisions are indispensable in making the federal republic functional.
Applying Section 3’s disqualification to the presidency would create exactly the uniformity problem the Supreme Court now faces—different states reaching different conclusions about what is and isn’t an insurrection in the context of a national election.
There is ample evidence that the 14th Amendment’s drafters paid great attention to federalism concerns. This is particularly true regarding the amendment’s first two sections, which dramatically reshaped the relationship between U.S. citizens and the federal and state governments by requiring states to respect federal constitutional rights. As legal scholar Kurt T. Lash recounted in “Federalism and the Original Fourteenth Amendment,” a 2019 article, radical Republicans, who favored stronger federal power, clashed with moderate Republicans determined to preserve states’ rights under the Constitution’s original Madisonian federalism architecture. It is implausible that they would have fought hard to protect federalism while permitting each state to determine presidential disqualification for itself.
In U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton (1995), the Supreme Court held that states couldn’t impose their own qualifications on members of Congress. Justice John Paul Stevens’s majority opinion discussed at length how elections to the national legislature involved the people of the U.S. rather than citizens of each state, requiring that qualifications be nationally uniform. This logic is even more compelling when it comes to the president, who is elected by the entire nation. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 68, the Framers made the “appointment of the president” depend “in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment”—members of the Electoral College.
The Constitution authorizes state legislatures to determine how presidential electors are selected—and even to appoint them directly, as Colorado did in 1876—and the qualifications for serving as president are stated in the constitutional text. There is no indication that the states may interpret these for themselves. Stevens wrote that while states can adopt “election procedures” (his emphasis) that govern access to the ballot—such as signature requirements for independent candidates or “sore loser” provisions that bar a third-party run by a former candidate for a major-party nomination—they can’t set or revise qualifications for federal office.
Some of Mr. Trump’s opponents have pointed hopefully to Hassan v. Colorado, a 2012 decision of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in which then-Judge Neil Gorsuch upheld the state’s authority to bar from the ballot a naturalized citizen who wanted to run for president. Abdul Karim Hassan asserted an eccentric theory that the 14th Amendment vitiated the requirement that the president be a natural-born citizen. Judge Gorsuch ruled that “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”—not that state officials or judges could decide what the qualifications for federal office are.
The meaning of “natural-born citizen” is open to dispute in certain unusual cases involving would-be candidates born overseas to American parents or in unincorporated U.S. territories (where the Constitution doesn’t fully apply). If such a dispute arose and states responded to it differently, the federal courts would have to intervene quickly to impose uniformity. To avoid precisely that sort of situation, the drafters of the 14th Amendment left the presidency out of Section 3.
A Supreme Court decision to that effect would be consistent with the doctrine that judges should avoid deciding constitutional issues unnecessarily. Was the riot of Jan. 6, 2021, an “insurrection”? If so, what does it mean to have “engaged” in it? Does disqualifying someone from office require an act of Congress or a criminal conviction? These questions may be pertinent in future cases, but not in Trump v. Anderson.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.