Four indictments of Donald Trump have so far done no more to stop him than two earlier impeachments did. He remains easily the front-runner in the Republican primaries, and in some polls is running equal with President Biden. But now a theory defended by able legal scholars has emerged, arguing that Trump is constitutionally disqualified from serving as president.
Even if Trump secures enough electoral votes to win the presidency next year, legal Professors Michael Paulsen and Will Baude argue, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution would disqualify him from federal office. Former Judge Michael Luttig and Professor Laurence Tribe have enthusiastically seconded the theory. While their theory about the continuing relevance of the Constitution’s insurrection clause strikes us as correct, they err in believing that anyone, down to the lowest county election worker, has the right to strike Trump from the ballot.
Ratified in 1868, the 14th Amendment is a load-bearing constitutional pillar erected during the Reconstruction period. Section 3 deals with the treatment of former state and federal officials, and their allies, who had taken sides with the Confederacy in the Civil War:
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.
Although Section 3 unquestionably applied to Confederates, its text contains nothing limiting it to the Civil War. Rather, it has continuing relevance to any future “insurrection or rebellion.” Although it does not explicitly refer to presidents or presidential candidates, comparison with other constitutional texts referring to “officer[s]” supports the interpretation that it applies to the presidency too.
Section 3 distinguishes between “rebellion” and “insurrection,” and we have a contemporary guide to the meaning of that distinction. In the Prize Cases (1863), the Supreme Court declared that “[i]nsurrection against a government may or may not culminate in an organized rebellion, but a civil war always begins by insurrection against the lawful authority of the Government.” “Insurrection” therefore refers to political violence at a level lower or less organized than an “organized rebellion,” though it may develop into that. Trump may have been an “insurrectionist” but not a “rebel.”
But was he even an “insurrectionist”? In their Atlantic piece, Luttig and Tribe find the answer obvious: “We believe that any disinterested observer who witnessed that bloody assault on the temple of our democracy, and anyone who learns about the many failed schemes to bloodlessly overturn the election before that, would have to come to the same conclusion.”
But that view is not universally shared. Finding “disinterested observers” in a country marked by passionate disagreements over Donald Trump is no easy task. Despite the scenes of the attack on the Capitol and extensive investigations, the American people do not seem to agree that Trump took part in an insurrection or rebellion. Almost half the respondents in a 2022 CBS poll rejected the claim that the events of Jan. 6 were an actual “insurrection” (with the divide tracking partisan lines), and 76 percent viewed it as a “protest gone too far.”
Other considerations also call into question the claim that Trump instigated an “insurrection” in the constitutional sense. If it were clear that Trump engaged in insurrection, the Justice Department should have acted on the Jan. 6 Committee’s referral for prosecution on that charge. Special Counsel Jack Smith should have indicted him for insurrection or seditious conspiracy, which remain federal crimes. If it were obvious that Trump had committed insurrection, Congress should have convicted him in the two weeks between Jan. 6 and Inauguration Day. Instead, the House impeached Trump for indictment to insurrection but the Senate acquitted him.
The Senate’s acquittal is the only official finding by a federal or state institution on the question of whether Trump committed insurrection. The failure of the special counsel to charge insurrection and the Senate to convict in the second impeachment highlights a serious flaw in the academic theory of disqualification.
According to Luttig and Tribe, it appears self-evident that Trump committed insurrection. They assume Trump violated the law without any definitive finding by any federal authority. According to their view, he must carry the burden of proof to show he is not guilty of insurrection or rebellion — a process that achieves the very opposite of our Constitution’s guarantee of due process, which, it so happens, is not just provided for by the Fifth Amendment, but reaffirmed in the same 14th Amendment that contains the disqualification clause. It would be like requiring Barak Obama to prove he was native-born (a constitutional prerequisite for being president) if state election officials disqualified him for being foreign-born.
The Electoral College Chooses Presidents, Not State Officials
If this academic view were correct, it would throw our electoral system into chaos. One of the chief virtues of the Electoral College system is that it decentralizes the selection of the president: State legislatures decide the manner for choosing electors, with each state receiving votes equal to its representation in the House and Senate. States run the elections, which means that hundreds, if not thousands, of city, county, and state officials could execute this unilateral finding of insurrection. A county state election official, for example, could choose to remove Trump’s name from printed ballots or refuse to count any votes in his favor. A state court could order Trump barred from the election. A state governor could refuse to certify any electoral votes in his favor. The decentralization of our electoral system could allow a single official, especially from a battleground state, to sway the outcome of a close race in the 2024 presidential election.
Allowing a single state to wield this much power over the federal government runs counter to broader federalism principles articulated by the Supreme Court. In our nation’s most important decision on the balance of power between the national government and the states, McCullough v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall held that a single state could not impose a tax on the Bank of the United States. Marshall famously observed that “the power to tax is the power to destroy.”
Marshall may well have frowned upon single state officials deciding to eliminate candidates for federal office on their own initiative. The Supreme Court lent further support for this idea in United States Term Limits v. Thornton (1995), which held that states could not effectively add new qualifications for congressional candidates by barring long-time incumbents from appearing on the ballot. Writing for the majority, Justice Stevens argued that allowing states to add term limits as a qualification for their congressional elections conflicted with “the uniformity and national character [of Congress] that the framers sought to ensure.” Allowing state election officials to decide for themselves whether someone has incited or committed insurrection, without any meaningful trial or equivalent proceeding, would give states the ability to achieve what term limits forbid.
Congress Has Other Means of Enforcement
We are not arguing that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment lacks the means of enforcement (though not every official who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution has such enforcement power). Each branch of the federal government can honor Section 3 in the course of executing its unique constitutional functions. Article I of the Constitution allows Congress to sentence an impeached president not just to removal from office, but also disqualification from office in the future. Congress could pass a statute disqualifying named insurrectionists from office — we think this would not qualify as an unconstitutional bill of attainder — or set out criteria for judicial determination.
Using its enforcement power under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment, Congress could conceivably establish a specialized tribunal for the handling of insurrectionists. The president could detain suspected insurrectionists, subject ultimately to judicial review under a writ of habeas corpus, or prosecute them under the federal law of insurrection and seditious conspiracy. Federal courts will have the ultimate say, except in cases of unilateral congressional action, such as lifting a disqualification by supermajority votes, because they will make the final judgment on any prosecutions and executive detentions.
We are not apologists for Trump’s spreading of baseless claims of electoral fraud or his efforts to stop the electoral count on Jan. 6. But as with the weak charges brought by the special counsel, the effort to hold Trump accountable for his actions should not depend on a warping of our constitutional system. Prosecutors should charge him with insurrection if they can prove it and have that conviction sustained on appeal. Congress should disqualify Trump if it can agree he committed the crime. Ultimately, the American people will decide Trump’s responsibility for the events of Jan. 6, but at the ballot box in 2024’s nominating and general elections for president.