Supreme Court to Consider Civil War Precedent in Trump Ballot Eligibility Case

As the Supreme Court prepares for a crucial hearing on whether former President Donald Trump should be included on the Republican primary ballot in Colorado, legal scholars are turning their attention to the annals of history, specifically Chief Justice Salmon Chase’s rulings during the aftermath of the Civil War, reported NBC News.

Chase’s decisions in two notable cases from the late 1860s, one involving Confederate President Jefferson Davis and another, a Black man named Caesar Griffin, are resurfacing in court filings related to Trump’s eligibility under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.

The enforcement of Section 3 is a critical legal issue in Trump’s case, with potential consequences if other states adopt Colorado’s approach to removing him from the ballot.

The provision aimed to bar former government officials who joined the Confederacy from holding office after the Civil War.

Trump’s lawyers reference Chase’s ruling in the Griffin case, arguing that it supports the idea of congressional enforcement legislation as the exclusive means for enforcing Section 3. They present multiple arguments to overturn the Colorado ruling.

In their brief, the plaintiffs, six Colorado voters, contend that Chase’s opinion is “non-binding.”

In the Davis case, Chase, who was also eyeing the presidency himself, concluded that the former Confederate president should not face prosecution for treason. Cynthia Nicoletti, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, describes Chase’s argument as a “clever maneuver” driven by political expediency.

However, just a year later, Chase took a different stance in Griffin’s case, where a defendant sought to invalidate his conviction due to the judge’s Confederate background. This time, Chase ruled that “legislation by Congress is necessary” for disqualification under the 14th Amendment.

The relevance of Chase’s rulings comes to the forefront as the Supreme Court reviews Trump’s plea to overturn a Colorado Supreme Court ruling, which declared him ineligible under Section 3. Trump’s legal team invokes Chase’s Griffin ruling in their brief, arguing for “congressional enforcement legislation as the exclusive means for enforcing Section 3.”

Legal scholars, including Vikram Amar from the University of California Davis School of Law, acknowledge the historical significance but caution against elevating any single case or justice as a definitive guide. The conservative-majority Supreme Court tends to weigh heavily on the original understanding of constitutional provisions.

While some, like Justice Carlos Samour, find Chase’s Griffin ruling compelling, others, including law professors William Baude and Michael Paulsen, argue that Chase’s decisions were not straightforward and that Section 3 is “self-executing.”

The debate over how Section 3 can be enforced adds complexity to Trump’s case, where the plaintiffs, six Colorado voters, dismiss Chase’s opinion as “non-binding” and highlight his “contradictory position” in the Davis case. Legal experts like Ellen Connally suggest a close examination of history but acknowledge Chase’s possible pursuit of a loophole in the Davis case.

As the Supreme Court navigates the intricate legal arguments in Trump’s case, it remains to be seen whether Chase’s historical rulings will provide a decisive guide or add another layer of complexity to the ongoing legal saga.

Jim Thomas

Jim Thomas is a writer based in Indiana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, a law degree from U.I.C. Law School, and has practiced law for more than 20 years.

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