Politics and Government

Minnesota Supreme Court rejects bid to bar Trump from primary ballot

A judge listens to arguments during a court hearing.
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Natalie Hudson questioned Ronald Fein, attorney for the petitioner, Free Speech for People on Nov. 2 in St. Paul.
Glen Stubbe | Pool via Star Tribune

Updated: 5:52 p.m.

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday tossed out an attempt to disqualify former President Donald Trump from presidential primary ballots in the state in 2024, but left open the possibility of revisiting the matter later.

Less than a week after attorneys presented oral arguments in the case, the court said it was moving fast to allow for an orderly election. An appeal is possible.

“There is no state statute that prohibits a major political party from placing on the presidential nomination primary ballot, or sending delegates to the national convention supporting a candidate who is ineligible to hold office,” wrote Chief Justice Natalie Hudson.

Minnesota voters and watchdog groups filed the lawsuit contending that Trump should be blocked from the presidential primary ballot because of a Civil War-era constitutional amendment that prevents candidates from holding federal office if they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” or “gave aid or comfort to the enemies.”

They argued Trump’s actions met the threshold through remarks that could have incited the January 6, 2021 Capitol storming by his supporters.

Hudson didn’t rule out wading into a future lawsuit if one is filed over Trump’s general election status if he is the Republican nominee.

“Although the Secretary of State and other election officials administer the mechanics of the election, this is an internal party election to serve internal party purposes, and winning the presidential nomination primary does not place the person on the general election ballot as a candidate for President of the United States,” she wrote in the four-page order.

An attorney representing the Secretary of State’s Office last week urged the court to act quickly to allow time to get ballots printed for the 2024 presidential primary. Secretary of State Steve Simon said he was grateful for the court’s rapid action.

“The court has made it clear that former President Trump’s name will appear on the primary ballot, should the Republican party choose to submit him as a candidate,” Simon said. “We respect this decision and will uphold the outcome.” 

Early voting ahead of Minnesota’s March presidential primary starts Jan. 19, which is why election administrators wanted a decision by early January.

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said the ruling recognizes that the challenges amount to improper election interference by those afraid of Trump's strong candidacy.

Cheung slammed the organizations behind them not as watchdog groups but as "sham groups doing the bidding of the Biden campaign and their ballot challenges should be summarily thrown out wherever they next arise.”

Legal scholars believe that Minnesota’s case — or one like it — could prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to examine the post-Civil War era provision.

The voters and groups that brought the lawsuit said the court’s ruling addressed “technicalities” rather than the meat of their constitutional argument. And that could mean similar efforts in other states or a later effort in Minnesota could gain traction.

“We are disappointed by the court’s decision,” the group’s attorney Ron Fein said in a statement. “However, the Minnesota Supreme Court explicitly recognized that the question of Donald Trump’s disqualification for engaging in insurrection against the U.S. Constitution may be resolved at a later stage.”

During a 75-minute hearing last week, justices peppered Trump’s attorney and attorneys representing the voters over how they could define an insurrection and whether they had the authority to block a federal candidate from the ballot.

Hudson asked Fein, who represented the petitioners, if keeping a presidential an otherwise qualified candidate off the ballot would be prudent for a state court, saying “Should we do it even if we could do it and we can do it?”

She also said at one point: “Insurrection might be in the eye of the beholder. It depends on who is doing the beholding.”

During the hearing, Justice Gordon Moore asked Trump’s attorney Nicholas Nelson to spell out what the bar would be for proving that someone engaged in insurrection.

“What does it mean in your estimation to have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the constitution?“ Moore asked. “I mean, in other words, what would petitioners have to prove to us to satisfy that standard?”

The Minnesota lawsuit and another in Colorado, where a similar trial is playing out, were among several filed around the country to bar Trump from state ballots in 2024 over his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, an assault intended to halt Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 win.

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