The Supreme Court Just Erased Part of the Constitution

As of Monday, March 4, 2024, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution is essentially a dead letter, at least as it applies to candidates for federal office. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that reversed the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision striking Donald Trump from the state’s primary ballot, even insurrectionists who’ve violated their previous oath of office can hold federal office, unless and until Congress passes specific legislation to enforce Section 3.

In the aftermath of the oral argument last month, legal observers knew with near-certainty that the Supreme Court was unlikely to apply Section 3 to Trump. None of the justices seemed willing to uphold the Colorado court’s ruling, and only Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave any meaningful indication that she might dissent. The only real question remaining was the reasoning for the court’s decision. Would the ruling be broad or narrow?

A narrow ruling for Trump might have held, for example, that Colorado didn’t provide him with enough due process when it determined that Section 3 applied. Or the court could have held that Trump, as president, was not an “officer of the United States” within the meaning of the section. Such a ruling would have kept Trump on the ballot, but it would also have kept Section 3 viable to block insurrectionists from the House or Senate and from all other federal offices.

A somewhat broader ruling might have held that Trump did not engage in insurrection or rebellion or provide aid and comfort to the enemies of the Constitution. Such a ruling would have sharply limited Section 3 to apply almost exclusively to Civil War-style conflicts, an outcome at odds with the text and original public meaning of the section. It’s worth noting that, by not taking this path, the court did not exonerate Trump from participating in an insurrection.

But instead of any of these options, the court went with arguably the broadest reasoning available: that Section 3 isn’t self-executing, and thus has no force or effect in the absence of congressional action. This argument is rooted in Section 5 of the amendment, which states that “Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

But Section 5, on its face, does not give Congress exclusive power to enforce the amendment. As Justices Elena Kagan, Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson pointed out in their own separate concurring opinion, “All the Reconstruction amendments (including the due process and equal protection guarantees and prohibition of slavery) ‘are self-executing,’ meaning that they do not depend on legislation.” While Congress may pass legislation to help enforce the 14th Amendment, it is not required to do so, and the 14th Amendment still binds federal, state and local governments even if Congress refuses to act.

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