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Maine court pauses order that excluded Trump from primary ballot, pending Supreme Court ruling

Trump ballot eligibility challenge in Maine
Maine court faces deadline on Trump ballot eligibility 08:42

Washington — The Maine Superior Court on Wednesday cleared the way for former President Donald Trump to appear on the state's Republican presidential primary ballot for now, sending a dispute over his eligibility for a second term back to the secretary of state for further proceedings once the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling in a similar case from Colorado.

In a 17-page order, Justice Michaela Murphy, who sits on the superior court in Augusta, said that a December decision from Secretary of State Shella Bellows, a Democrat, should remain on hold until the Supreme Court renders its decision in the Colorado dispute.

Noting that Maine's primary is scheduled for March 5, Murphy wrote that "unless the Supreme Court before that date finds President Trump disqualified to hold the office of president, eligible Maine voters who wish to cast their vote for him in the primary will be able to do so, with the winner being determined by ranked-choice voting."

She said that Maine law grants her the authority to send the matter back to Bellows and order her to issue a new ruling once the Supreme Court decides the Colorado case. Murphy gave the secretary of state 30 days after the nation's highest court weighs in to issue a new decision "modifying, withdrawing or confirming" her original determination about Trump's eligibility for office.

Murphy said that because there are many federal issues raised in the other dispute, "it would be imprudent for this court to be the first court in Maine to address them."

"Put simply, the United States Supreme Court's acceptance of the Colorado case changes everything about the order in which these issues should be decided, and by which court," she wrote. "And while it is impossible to know what the Supreme Court will decide, hopefully it will at least clarify what role, if any, state decision-makers, including secretaries of state and state judicial officers, play in adjudicating claims of disqualification brought under Section Three of the 14th Amendment."

The background of the Maine case

Trump asked the Maine Superior Court to review the decision from Bellows, who concluded that he is not qualified to hold the presidency under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. The provision, enacted after the Civil War, bars anyone who swears an oath to support the Constitution and then engages in insurrection against it from holding public office.

Acting in response to two challenges to Trump's candidacy under Section 3, Bellows concluded that Trump engaged in insurrection by inflaming his supporters in the weeks before and on Jan. 6, and directing them to march to the Capitol to disrupt Congress' certification of the 2020 election.

"The events of January 6, 2021 were unprecedented and tragic. They were an attack not only upon the Capitol and government officials, but also an attack on the rule of law," she wrote. "The evidence here demonstrates that they occurred at the behest of, and with the knowledge and support of, the outgoing President. The U.S. Constitution does not tolerate an assault on the foundations of our government, and Section 336 requires me to act in response."

Bellows was the first and only state election official to unilaterally find Trump is not eligible for the state's primary ballot, though she paused the effect of her decision to allow him to appeal to the superior court. Maine and a dozen other states will hold their primary elections on March 5.

The former president had urged the court to toss out Bellows' ruling and require her to immediately place his name on the primary ballot. Trump's legal team alleged that Bellows was a "biased decisionmaker" who should've recused herself from the matter and said she had no legal authority under Maine law to consider the constitutional issues raised by the voters contesting his eligibility for office.

Bellows' ruling, Trump's lawyers wrote in a filing to the Superior Court, "was the product of a process infected by bias and pervasive lack of due process." They also argued that even if Maine law allowed the secretary of state to consider challenges to Trump's candidacy under Section 3, she could not have done so, under the theory that the provision requires congressional legislation to give it effect and does not bar a candidate from running for office.

Trump's legal team further argued that the measure does not apply to the presidency or those who have sworn the presidential oath and contested that he engaged in insurrection.

"For the first time in our nation's history, a secretary of state has taken it upon herself to take away the choice of who should be a major party's nominee for president of the United States from the people, based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment," his lawyers wrote. "This usurpation of the power of the people of Maine to choose their own political leaders is contrary to both state and federal law, including the Constitution of the United States."

Bellows refuted Trump's allegation that she was biased against him, writing in court papers that she conducted an impartial hearing on the matter of his eligibility. Lawyers for the state also argued that the text of Section 3 does not include any requirement for Congress to pass enforcement legislation.

"Mr. Trump knowingly incited an attack on the Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power," they told the superior court. "The record is such that the secretary — consistent with the deferential standard of review — permissibly concluded that Mr. Trump engaged in insurrection and is accordingly not qualified for the office of the president by operation of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment."

The issue of whether Trump is eligible for a second term in the White House is set to be decided by the Supreme Court, which agreed to review a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court finding he is disqualified from holding the presidency.

The landmark 4-3 decision from the Colorado court marked the first time Section 3 has been used to successfully render a presidential candidate ineligible. The Colorado Supreme Court put its decision on hold to allow Trump time to appeal.

A ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court could determine whether Trump can be listed on the primary ballot not only in Colorado, but across the country. The justices are expected to issue a decision soon after arguments on Feb. 8.

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