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Power Within the Union: Analysing the Trump v. Anderson Case and the Balance Between Federal and State Authority

In mid-December 2023, the Colorado Supreme Court made history by invoking Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to disqualify Trump from the state's primary ballot, citing his alleged involvement in the events of January 6, 2021. However, only a few months later the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous reversal of this decision underscored the limitations of state authority in federal electoral matters. The case, Trump v. Anderson, spurred scholarly discourse on federalism, powers delineation, and electoral integrity, reasserting the primacy of the Constitution in safeguarding democratic processes. This article explores a pivotal legal saga surrounding the eligibility of former President Donald Trump for presidential candidacy, spotlighting a significant judicial maneuver initiated by the Colorado Supreme Court and later adjudicated by the United States Supreme Court. 


On 19 December, 2023 a divided Colorado Supreme Court decided in a 4-3 decision that President Donald Trump was ineligible for the White House under the United States Constitution’s insurrection clause, deciding to remove him from the primary ballot for the presidency in the state. This marks the first time in history that any court has used Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to disqualify a presidential candidate. This landmark decision came after a group of Republican and independent voters in the state of Colorado filed a lawsuit backed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an officially nonpartisan but left-leaning group that regularly challenges Trump. This lawsuit claimed that Trump needed to be barred from the state’s 2024 election ballots because of his role in the insurrection on 6 January, 2021, further saying that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment has not often been tested as there has been a lack of insurrections in the last 150 years.


Amendment 14, Section 3 of the United States Constitution bars any officer of the United States who took an oath that he would support the nation’s constitution and then subsequently participated in an insurrection or rebellion. However, the language in this section is unclear as to whether or not it applies to the presidency, and this is where Trump’s legal battles began. In the late months of 2023, a relatively low-level state court judge in Colorado issued a ruling stating that Trump’s conduct met the standard for disqualification under the 14th amendment, stating that he did engage in an insurrection, but the amendment does not apply to the president. Furthermore, the judge wrote that those who wrote Section 3 “did not intend to include the President as ‘an officer of the United States.” However, this decision was escalated to the state’s Supreme Court and was overturned in the 19 December decision. After this decision was made, Trump’s spokeswoman Alina Hababa said that the Colorado ruling attacks the heart of the nation’s democracy, further saying that she trusted that the Supreme Court would do the right thing and overturn the ruling. And on 4 March, the United States Supreme Court did just that. 


On 4 March, the Supreme Court released its opinion on the Trump v. Anderson case, unanimously reversing the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to remove former President Donald Trump from the state’s primary ballot. This ruling bars states from disqualifying candidates for federal office under a constitutional provision involving insurrection as the justices determined that Congress alone could enforce the constitutional provision in Amendment 14 against federal officeholders and candidates. In the unsigned opinion of the court, the Justices stated that states can only disqualify those attempting to hold state office, concluding that these states have no power under the Constitution to enforce Section 3 with those running for federal office such as the presidency. However, despite the unanimous decision by the court, the three liberal justices, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson objected to the majority’s decision to announce rules limiting Section 3 enforcement in the future, saying that the Court resolved issues that were not directly related to the problem at hand claiming further that  “The majority goes beyond the necessities of this case to limit how Section 3 can bar an oath-breaking insurrectionist from becoming president” protesting this effort to define the limits of federal enforcement. Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in a concurring opinion, wrote that the court had settled a politically charged issue at a time where the nation is at odds over an upcoming presidential election. She wrote “for present purposes, our differences are far less important than our unanimity: All nine Justices agree on the outcome of this case. That is the message Americans should take home”. These objections to the decision come as a question to the motives of the Conservative Supreme Court, as the liberal Justices believe that the majority is attempting to insulate all alleged insurrectionists from future challenges to their holding federal offices, saying they decided novel questions about the constitution which were not directly linked to the case in order to insulate the Court and Trump from any future controversy ignoring the majority’s affirmation that Congress has exactly that power. 


Despite those who were against Trump, with hopes of his removal from the presidential race, the Court’s decision in the Anderson case is not only good for Trump, but also for the country’s democratic system. The decision upholds the constitution and freedoms granted in it and ultimately the fundamental union between the states. Within their concurring opinion of the case, the three liberal Justices wrote that allowing Colorado to remove a presidential candidate from their state ballot under Section 3 would imperil the vision’s of the Constitution’s framers of a federal government responsible to the people. Essentially, if the Court had not ruled against the Colorado decision, it would have allowed the elections of federal officials to be in the hands of state governments. This would allow a few officials in various states to decide the outcome of presidential candidates, taking the power away from the people. The three liberals described this as a state-by-state patchwork of electoral decisions which would be at odds with the principles of federalism which are the base of the Nation’s government. The decision of the court was simply upholding the power granted to the federal government by the Constitution. The 14th Amendment was designed to increase the power of the federal government vis-a-vis the states, keeping individual states from tearing the Union apart and ultimately dragging the nation into a state of political uproar. More importantly however, it would be a constitutional travesty. 


In conclusion, the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Trump v. Anderson case goes beyond partisan divides, affirming the fundamental principles of democracy and the constitutional balance of powers. While the Colorado Supreme Court's decision marked a historic interpretation of the 14th Amendment, the subsequent reversal underscores the importance of federal oversight in matters concerning federal officeholders and candidates. Upholding the Constitution's vision of a Federal Government directly responsible to the people, the Court's decision safeguards against a fragmented electoral landscape and preserves the integrity of the Union. Though contentious, this ruling serves as a pivotal moment in reinforcing the nation's democratic foundations and preventing constitutional discord.


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