No, the 14th Amendment Can’t Disqualify Trump

by | Aug 20, 2023 | Constitution

Interpreting this post-Civil War amendment as a general provision for disqualifying candidates who some people may believe participated in what they regard as an insurrection or rebellion—as distinguished from a protest or even a riot—would create yet another divisive weapon in our increasingly partisan war.

Several academics—including members of the conservative Federalist Society— are now arguing that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment prohibits Donald Trump from becoming president. They focus on the language that prohibits anyone who “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion… or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof” from holding “any office.” The amendment provides no mechanism for determining whether a candidate falls within this disqualification, though it says that “Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each house, remove such disability.” Significantly, the text does not authorize Congress—or any other body or individual—to impose the disqualification in the first place.

A fair reading of the text and history of the 14th Amendment makes it relatively clear, however, that the disability provision was intended to apply to those who served the Confederacy during the Civil War. It wasn’t intended as a general provision empowering one party to disqualify the leading candidate of the other party in any future elections.

First, the text. Section 4 of the 14th amendment provides the following:

“But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave.”

It seems clear that this provision was intended to apply to a particular insurrection and rebellion—namely the Civil War that resulted in the “emancipation“ of enslaved people. There were no slaves to be emancipated in the United States after that war.

Moreover, the absence of any mechanism, procedure or criteria for determining whether a candidate is disqualified demonstrates that the amendment did not lay down a general rule for future elections involving candidates who were not part of the Confederacy. It was fairly evident who participated in the Civil War on the part of the South. No formal mechanism was needed for making that obvious determination. If the disqualification had been intended as a general rule applicable to all future elections, it would have been essential to designate the appropriate decision maker, the procedures and the criteria for making so important a decision.

In the absence of any such designation, it would be possible for individual states to disqualify a candidate, while others qualify him. It would also be possible for the incumbent president to seek to disqualify his rival, or for a partisan congress to do so. There is no explicit provision for the courts to intervene in what they might regard as a political question. So elections might be conducted with differing interpretations of eligibility and no procedures for resolving disputes about them. It is absolutely certain that if Trump were disqualified by some person or institution dominated by Democrats, and if the controversy were not resolved by the Supreme Court, there would be a constitutional crisis.

Finally, there is the hypocrisy of some who argued in defense of race-specific affirmative action that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment should be interpreted in light of its post-Civil War history to protect only previously enslaved people and their descendants, rather than members of the white majority. They would interpret the equal protection clause narrowly and limited by its immediate history, while interpreting the disqualification clause broadly to apply to all candidates in all elections. A fair reading of the amendment leads to the opposite conclusion: the broad language of section 2 of the equal protection clause (“nor shall any state… deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”) strongly suggest general application without being time-bound; whereas the more specific language of sections 3 and 4 (referring to emancipated slaves and using words that were commonly used to describe the confederate insurrection and rebellion against the Union) suggests a more time-bound application.

Interpreting this post-Civil War amendment as a general provision for disqualifying candidates who some people may believe participated in what they regard as an insurrection or rebellion—as distinguished from a protest or even a riot—would create yet another divisive weapon in our increasingly partisan war. It would be used by Republicans against candidates who may have supported (gave “aid or comfort” to) riots such as those that followed the killing of George Floyd or other violence-provoking events.

The Constitution articulated limited qualifications for presidential eligibility. Beyond those neutral criteria, the decision should be made by voters, who are free to consider the participation of a candidate in activities with which they disagree. Unless an amendment was clearly intended to further limit these qualifications, the voters are the ones to decide who is to be their president. The vague language of the 14th Amendment falls far short of what should be required for so radical a departure from our electoral process.

 

Notes

Full text of 14th Amendment:

Amendment XIV

Section 1.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2.

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male* inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age,** and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.

Section 3.

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4.

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any state shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5.

The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

* Amendment #19. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
** Amendment #26. “The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”

Alan Dershowitz is professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and the author of “Get Trump,” “Guilt by Accusation” and “The Price of Principle.” Active in litigation, writing, and defense of civil liberties and human rights. Visit his substack and follow him at @AlanDersh.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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