Two prominent conservative law professors have concluded that Donald J. Trump is ineligible to be president under a provision of the Constitution that bars people who have engaged in an insurrection from holding government office. The professors are active members of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group, and proponents of originalism, the method of interpretation that seeks to determine the Constitution’s original meaning.
The professors — William Baude of the University of Chicago and Michael Stokes Paulsen of the University of St. Thomas — studied the question for more than a year and detailed their findings in a long article to be published next year in The University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
“When we started out, neither of us was sure what the answer was,” Professor Baude said. “People were talking about this provision of the Constitution. We thought: ‘We’re constitutional scholars, and this is an important constitutional question. We ought to figure out what’s really going on here.’ And the more we dug into it, the more we realized that we had something to add.”
He summarized the article’s conclusion: “Donald Trump cannot be president — cannot run for president, cannot become president, cannot hold office — unless two-thirds of Congress decides to grant him amnesty for his conduct on Jan. 6.”
There is, the article said, “abundant evidence” that Mr. Trump engaged in an insurrection, including by setting out to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election, trying to alter vote counts by fraud and intimidation, encouraging bogus slates of competing electors, pressuring the vice president to violate the Constitution, calling for the march on the Capitol and remaining silent for hours during the attack itself.
“It is unquestionably fair to say that Trump ‘engaged in’ the Jan. 6 insurrection through both his actions and his inaction,” the article said.
Steven G. Calabresi, a law professor at Northwestern and Yale and a founder of the Federalist Society, called the article “a tour de force.”
But James Bopp Jr., who has represented House members whose candidacies were challenged under the provision, said the authors “have adopted a ridiculously broad view” of it, adding that the article’s analysis “is completely anti-historical.”
(Mr. Bopp’s clients have had mixed success in cases brought under the provision. A state judge, assuming that the Jan. 6 attacks were an insurrection and that participating in them barred candidates from office, ruled that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, had not taken part in or encouraged the attacks after she took an oath to support the Constitution on Jan 3. A federal appeals court ruled against Representative Madison Cawthorn, Republican of North Carolina, on one of his central arguments, but the case was rendered moot by his loss in the 2022 primary.)
The provision in question is Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. Adopted after the Civil War, it bars those who had taken an oath “to support the Constitution of the United States” from holding office if they then “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
Congress can remove the prohibition, the provision says, but only by a two-thirds vote in each House.
The new article examined the historical evidence illuminating the meaning of the provision at great length, using the methods of originalism. It drew on, among other things, contemporaneous dictionary definitions, other provisions of the Constitution using similar language, “the especially strong evidence from 1860s Civil War era political and legal usage of nearly the precise same terms” and the early enforcement of the provision.
The article concluded that essentially all of that evidence pointed in the same direction: “toward a broad understanding of what constitutes insurrection and rebellion and a remarkably, almost extraordinarily, broad understanding of what types of conduct constitute engaging in, assisting, or giving aid or comfort to such movements.”
It added, “The bottom line is that Donald Trump both ‘engaged in’ ‘insurrection or rebellion’ and gave ‘aid or comfort’ to others engaging in such conduct, within the original meaning of those terms as employed in Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.”
Though the provision was devised to address the aftermath of the Civil War, it was written in general terms and continues to have force, the article said.
Congress granted broad amnesties in 1872 and 1898. But those acts were retrospective, the article said, and did not limit Section 3’s prospective force. (A federal appeals court agreed last year in the case involving Mr. Cawthorn.)
The provision’s language is automatic, the article said, establishing a qualification for holding office no different in principle from the Constitution’s requirement that only people who are at least 35 years old are eligible to be president.
“Section 3’s disqualification rule may and must be followed — applied, honored, obeyed, enforced, carried out — by anyone whose job it is to figure out whether someone is legally qualified to office,” the authors wrote. That includes election administrators, the article said.
“There are many ways that this could become a lawsuit presenting a vital constitutional issue that potentially the Supreme Court would want to hear and decide,” Professor Paulsen said.
Professor Calabresi sketched out one possibility. “Trump is ineligible to be on the ballot, and each of the 50 state secretaries of state has an obligation to print ballots without his name on them,” he said, adding that they may be sued for refusing to do so.
(Professor Calabresi has occasionally strayed from conservative orthodoxy, leading to an unusual request from the group he helped found. “I have been asked not to talk to any journalist who identifies me as a co-founder of the Federalist Society, even though it is a historical fact,” he said. I noted the request and ignored it.)
Some of the evidence the article considered overlapped with what was described in the recent indictment of Mr. Trump accusing him of conspiring to subvert the 2020 election. But that case and Section 3 address “completely separate questions,” Professor Baude said.
“The question of should Donald Trump go to jail is entrusted to the criminal process,” he said. “The question of should he be allowed to take the constitutional oath again and be given constitutional power again is not a question given to any jury.”
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