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Bid to keep Trump off Maine's primary ballot stalls after Supreme Court overturns Colorado decision

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows speaks at the inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows speaks at the inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows has reversed her decision to declare former President Donald Trump ineligible for the presidential primary after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday invalidated a similar move by the Colorado law court.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously decided to overturn the Colorado's court's declaration that Trump is ineligible because he violated the insurrection clause of the U.S. Constitution when he incited the riots at the U.S. Capitol while attempting to reverse the certification of the 2020 presidential election.

Bellows had made a similar determination, but the high court's ruling forced her to amend her decision based on the court's finding that individual states cannot unilaterally remove presidential candidates from the primary ballot.

The court's ruling comes just a day before Super Tuesday, a primary day for 16 states, including Maine. Trump's name is already included on Maine's primary ballot because Bellows suspended her decision pending legal appeals. Trump's legal team quickly appealed Bellows' ruling and a Superior Court judge instructed her to await resolution of the Colorado case.

The Colorado and Bellows' decision turned on an interpretation of a post-Civil War era clause in the U.S. Constitution that bars insurrection participants from seeking office, but had never previously been used to block a presidential candidate.
But in a 20-page ruling, justices on the high court determined that states cannot disqualify presidential candidates using Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.

"We conclude that States may disqualify persons holding or attempting to hold state office. But States have no power under the Constitution to enforce Section 3 with respect to federal offices, especially the Presidency," the justices wrote.

Bellows, a Democrat, said in December that her determination was based on Trump’s range of falsehoods about the 2020 election and provoking his supporters to storm the Capitol and halt its certification in Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. She's the only state election official to make such a determination, which she said is because Maine law compelled her to. Decisions to bar Trump from the ballot in Colorado and Illinois were made by judges.

Her ruling sparked outrage from Maine Republicans and sparked a failed effort to impeach her by Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives.

Bellows, for her part, argued that the former president's actions before and during the Jan. 6 riots were clear violations of the 14th Amendment's insurrection clause.

"I am mindful that no secretary of state has ever deprived a presidential candidate of ballot access based on Section Three of the 14th Amendment," she said after her ruling in December. "I am also mindful, however, that no presidential candidate has ever before engaged in insurrection. The oath I swore to uphold the Constitution comes first above all, and my duty under Maine’s election laws, when presented with (a ballot challenge), is to ensure that candidates who appear on the primary ballot are qualified for the office they seek."

Justices on the Supreme Court were deeply skeptical of states' ability to remove presidential candidates from the primary ballot during oral arguments held Feb. 8. Chief Justice John Roberts worried during those arguments that allowing states to make unilateral decisions about ballot access could result in partisan efforts to disqualify candidates from either party.

“I would expect that, you know, a goodly number of states will say, whoever the Democratic candidate is, you’re off the ballot,” Roberts said. “And others for the Republican candidate, you’re off the ballot. It’ll come down to just a handful of states that are going to decide the presidential election. That’s a pretty daunting consequence."

In the majority opinion, justices said disqualification of presidential candidates "might possible only through criminal prosecution, as opposed to expedited civil proceedings, in particular States."

"Indeed, in some States — unlike Colorado (or Maine, where the secretary of state recently issued an order excluding former President Trump from the primary ballot) — procedures for excluding an ineligible candidate from the ballot may not exist at all," the majority wrote. "The result could well be that a single candidate would be declared ineligible in some States, but not others, based on the same conduct (and perhaps even the same factual record)."

While the ruling was unanimous, the three justices appointed by Democratic presidents — Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson — took issue with the conservative majority's assertion that Congressional action might be the only way to enforce the insurrection clause. The three justices said the conservative majority had used a novel constitutional question to "insulate this Court and petitioner (Trump) from future controversy."

"Although only an individual State’s action is at issue here, the majority opines on which federal actors can enforce Section 3, and how they must do so," they wrote. "The majority announces that a disqualification for insurrection can occur only when Congress enacts a particular kind of legislation pursuant to Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the majority shuts the door on other potential means of federal enforcement."

Bellows has declined to comment on the legal proceedings ever since a Superior Court judge effectively ordered her to reevaluate her ruling pending all appeals and a ruling by the law court.

She amended her decision Monday afternoon, a move that will further ensure that all votes for Trump on Tuesday are counted.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that individual states lack authority to enforce Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment with respect to federal offices,” she wrote in a statement. “Consistent with my oath and obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and pursuant to the Anderson decision, I hereby withdraw my determination that Mr. Trump’s primary petition is invalid.”

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.