Why is today's Supreme Court hearing the most important election case in a quarter century?

By hearing Trump's argument to be reinstated on Colorado's ballot, the court risks becoming an election-year spoiler

Photo collage of Donald Trump's face, a dictionary, and a book compilation of tweets from Trump
Can someone accused of fomenting an insurrection legally run for president?
(Image credit: Illustration by Julia Wytrazek / Getty Images)

It was perhaps ironic that when the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday began hearing arguments from attorneys for former President Donald Trump as to why their client should be reinstated onto Colorado's primary election ballot, the first justice to ask a question was none other than Clarence Thomas — the only member of the current court who served on the bench for the monumental Bush v. Gore hearing that essentially decided the results of the 2000 presidential election. Like that case, Thursday's hearing for Trump v. Anderson presents an unprecedented legal dilemma that could very well shift the trajectory of American democracy for years to come. 

Similarly ironic is the fact that Thomas is arguably the single most controversial justice in regard to this case, given his wife Ginni's involvement in the very acts that played into Colorado's decision to exclude Trump in the first place. Suffice it to say, Trump v. Anderson is as fraught and thorny a case as it is seismic and consequential. 

At its core, Trump v. Anderson hinges on whether Colorado was right to remove the former president from the state's Republican primary ballot under what's widely known as the "insurrectionist clause" of the 14th Amendment. In practice, however, the case is about more than Colorado's decision, and touches on the broader dilemma posed by Trump's 2024 presidential campaign: Can someone accused of fomenting an insurrection legally run for president?

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What did the commentators say?

Colorado may be in the spotlight today, but this case will have "major ramifications in other states" grappling with similar efforts to deny Trump a ballot spot, CNN said. At the same time, the arguments being put forth were, for some, frustratingly jejune, with The New Yorker's Susan Glaser lamenting that this was being treated as "just another ballot access issue" akin to "being the right age or living within a district's lines" on X

Of particular importance is the question of how the court defines "officer" as opposed to "office," with Trump's attorneys arguing the 14th Amendment's use of the phrase "officer of the United States" refers "only to appointed positions, not the presidency," according to The New York Times. It's a distinction that seems not to have swayed one of the court's most conservative justices. Amy Coney Barrett signaled she is "rejecting the stupid officer argument as she should," Brookings Institute senior fellow and legal analyst Norm Eisen crowed on X

Similarly important is how the court chooses to define "insurrection." Trump attorney Jonathan Mitchell argued that while Jan. 6 "involved violence," Trump did not "engage in acts that would fall under the term" used in the amendment. Justice Brett Kavanaugh "zeroed in on the insurrection part of Section 3" during his time for questions, probing "who gets to determine who engaged in" the act, according to analysis from NBC. It's a line of questioning that suggests "at least some of the conservative justices are open to the argument that Jan. 6 wasn't an insurrection," The New York Times' Maggie Astor said. 

What next? 

While the case is far from being decided, there are some hints as to where the court might ultimately land. Kavanaugh appeared eager to "punt this to Congress and keep the Supreme Court out of it," said Washington Post columnist James Hohmann on X.

For the court, "basically every outcome on this is bad," MSNBC's Ryan Teague Beckwith said on X. If the justices determine the 14th Amendment isn't "self-executing" (essentially, doesn't need further legislative steps to be in effect), he said, it would "avoid answering whether Jan. 6 was an insurrection, whether Trump should have been barred, etc., and say, well, really Congress should have passed a law but it didn't so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯"

Ultimately, SCOTUS inaction is a "recipe for disaster," legal analyst Bradley P. Moss said, asking followers on X to imagine a scenario in which Trump wins in November "even as a convicted defendant" forcing the high court to "rule on whether he can actually hold the office" in the interstitial stretch from Election Day to the inauguration. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed last month, a group of legal scholars described any post-election dilemma as a "possibly catastrophic constitutional crisis."

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