Key things to know about a Minnesota case challenging Trump’s ballot access

Published 2:29 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2023

By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday is set to hear oral arguments in a case aiming to block former President Donald Trump from future ballots, a high-stakes showdown that focuses on how his actions after the prior election should factor into his latest run.

Voters and nonprofit government watchdog groups have filed several similar lawsuits across the country. They argue that the Republican frontrunner in the 2024 presidential contest engaged in insurrection through his words and actions around Jan. 6, 2021.

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And they contend a Civil War-era constitutional amendment is grounds for keeping a candidate out of federal office, so state officials shouldn’t allow Trump to file for the 2024 presidential primary.

Trump’s attorneys and Republican backers have said the former president’s words and actions didn’t amount to participation in an insurrection. They argue that Congress — not state courts or election offices — should be removed from office.

The arguments Thursday move forward the case that is expected to be one of the quickest — if not the quickest — to yield a result.

It’s possible that, for the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court could weigh in on the validity of the  constitutional amendment at the crux of the lawsuit.

Here are six questions about the case answered.

What’s the big question here?

The main dispute in the case centers around whether Trump “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” or “gave aid or comfort to the enemies” of the United States through his actions and words on and before Jan. 6, 2021. And if he did, is that enough to permit Minnesota officials to  keep him off the ballots in 2024.

The constitutional amendment in play is rooted in the Civil War-era and was designed to keep confederates from occupying former federal offices. Specifically, the case hinges on section three of the 14th Amendment.

Who is bringing the case?

Eight Minnesota voters, including former Democratic Secretary of State Joan Growe and former Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson, filed a lawsuit in September arguing that Trump should be barred from ballots.

The group, along with government accountability organizations, says he engaged in insurrection when he fanned the flames of the uprising at the Capitol and when he called for the results of the 2020 election to be tossed out.

“Although Trump knew that these supporters were angry and that many were armed, Trump incited them to a violent insurrection and instructed them to march to the Capitol to ‘take back’ their country,” attorneys representing the group wrote in court filings. “He is disqualified from holding the presidency or any other office under the United States unless and until Congress provides him relief.”

John Bonifaz, an attorney and cofounder of the nonprofit group Free Speech for People, told MPR News that it doesn’t matter that Trump held the highest office in the land.

“The framers never intended to exempt presidents from a coverage section three of the 14th Amendment,” Bonifaz said. “The framers of that amendment made clear that it was to apply to all officers of the United States, and that includes a former president.”

Who is against it?

Trump’s attorneys, along with his presidential campaign and state and national Republican Parties, argue that he didn’t engage in insurrection. If anything, they say, he tried to prevent some of the violence at the Capitol in part by releasing videos urging the protesters to go home.

“President Trump gave a fiery speech to a crowd upset about the election. That is not engaging in insurrection,” Trump’s attorneys wrote in court filings. “President Trump explicitly instructed the crowd to behave ‘peacefully’ in advocating for specific Congressional action. That certainly is not engaging in insurrection.”

They also argue that state officials don’t have the authority to block a presidential or vice presidential candidate from the ballot. They contend that a decision needs to be made through the democratic process, where either Congress or American voters decide to disqualify him. Finally, they argue that he was expressing his First Amendment right to free speech in responding to the results of the 2020 election and speaking to his supporters in the days and weeks that followed.

His attorneys didn’t respond to an interview request ahead of Thursday’s hearing.

In a similar court case in Colorado, Trump’s attorneys have also alleged that the lawsuits are an attempt by Democrats to sink his presidential bid.

Why Minnesota?

The state’s constitution sets up an opportunity for voters to easily — and quickly — bring issues before the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Cases have been brought in several other states, but ones in Colorado and Minnesota are the fastest moving. A five-day hearing in Denver kicked off earlier this week.

Both courts are expected to rule expeditiously in these cases. The Colorado court has set a mid-November timeline for ruling while Minnesota’s Supreme Court is planning to rule as soon as possible.

Could it backfire politically?

Some leary of the legal challenge think so.

They fear it could play into Trump’s message: That the system is rigged against him and that people shouldn’t have faith in elections. They worry his exclusion would rile up both his hardcore supporters and those lukewarm to the former president.

Even people like DFL Gov. Tim Walz said it might be better to just let the electoral process unfold and work to defeat Trump in an election if he’s the nominee.

“This is a serious case. It will be heard. But I want folks to know, too, is the other way we hold Donald Trump accountable will be at the ballot box,” Walz told MSNBC last week. “So we’re certainly preparing to do that too.”

How quickly will this get resolved?

Election officials say this question does need to get resolved soon because early voting in Minnesota’s presidential primary elections starts on January 19. The Secretary of State’s office told the Supreme Court it needs an answer in early January at the latest to get ballots ready.

Both the plaintiffs and defendants could certainly appeal if they don’t get the outcome they’re looking for at the Minnesota Supreme Court.