CAMDEN, Maine — With two states ruling Donald Trump ineligible to serve again as president, the unprecedented constitutional issue seems destined for the U.S. Supreme Court, no matter how much the justices may prefer to avoid wading into this legal and political quagmire.
The former president’s campaign plans to immediately appeal Thursday’s decision by Maine’s top election official, as they did the one last week from the Colorado Supreme Court. Both deemed Trump disqualified from the presidency under the 14th Amendment because of his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump remains on the ballot in both states for next year’s GOP presidential primary, since both paused implementation of their decision to allow time for higher courts to intervene.
In Maine, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, said in an interview with NBC News that she would have preferred to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue guidance on the novel legal question — no presidential candidate has ever been disqualified under the 14th Amendment — but she said Maine law required her act now.
“The country would be well served if the United States Supreme Court issues clear guidance on this unprecedented constitutional question for all to follow,” Bellows said.
Maine election law, an outlier nationally, allows any registered voter to challenge the eligibility of any candidate. It requires the secretary of state to hold a public hearing on the challenge and then issue a decision on a tight timeline.
Three voters challenged Trump’s eligibility, two on 14th Amendment grounds. Bellows held a hearing last week, and the legal deadline for her decision was the end of this week.
“I did not choose to hold this hearing or issue a decision. I was duty-bound under Maine election laws and the Constitution,” Bellows said.
Still, she is well aware that her decision has set off a national legal and political maelstrom — and queued up a court fight in Maine that, under state law, will also have to move quickly.
“I am mindful that no secretary of state has ever deprived a presidential candidate of ballot access based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. I am also mindful, however, that no presidential candidate has ever before engaged in insurrection,” she said.
Section 3 of the 14th Amendment bars from public office any former official who swore an oath to the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same.” The clause was written after the Civil War to prevent unrepentant former Confederates from holding office in the newly reunited states.
Trump’s campaign says it plans to immediately appeal Bellows’ decision to the Maine Superior Court, the state’s top trial court. The statute mandates the court move fast, with a decision expected by Jan. 17 to either affirm or overturn Bellows’ decision.
That decision could then be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bellows will be represented in court by Maine’s attorney general, Aaron Frey, who is also a Democrat. Trump will be represented by his attorneys.
Given that inconsistency, officials are hoping for broad guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court that addresses the 14th Amendment question head on, instead of a narrow ruling on Colorado alone, which is likely to reach the justices first.
"All of this puts great pressure on the Supreme Court to take the case a make a national decision, quickly," said Michael Waldman, the president and CEO of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. "Otherwise, you’ll have a patchwork of outcomes in different states that will lead to chaos at the polls."
The case presents several knotty legal questions, several of which have little precedent to go on, as well as the more factual question of whether Trump engaged in insurrection around Jan. 6. He currently is facing federal criminal charges related to his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election, but was not charged by special counsel Jack Smith with insurrection.
Nonetheless, Waldman said, the court can move fast when it needs to, such as during Watergate and the 2000 Election. "In big cases where the presidency is at stake, they’ve ruled quickly," he said.
Bellows’ decision was predictably condemned by Republicans and hailed by some Democrats, though not all.
“Maine voters should decide who wins the election — not a Secretary of State chosen by the Legislature,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement.
Maine is unusual in letting the state Legislature, not voters or the governor, select the secretary of state and attorney general. Both chambers of the Legislature are currently controlled by Democrats.
At least one Maine Republican lawmaker is preparing an effort to impeach Bellows over her decision, though it would be unlikely to succeed in the Democratic Legislature.
Rep. Jared Golden, a moderate Democrat who represents Maine’s rural 2nd Congressional District, which Trump won twice, noted he voted to impeach Trump and does not want the former president re-elected — but he still disagrees with Bellows’ decision.
“Until he is actually found guilty of the crime of insurrection, he should be allowed on the ballot,” Golden said in a statement.
Rep. Dean Phillips, the Minnesota Democrat running a long-shot primary campaign against President Joe Biden, went even further. "Efforts to suppress candidates via the legal system, Secretaries of State, & political parties themselves, are un-democratic & un-American," Phillips wrote on the social media platform X.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a left-leaning group that has been heavily involved in efforts to disqualify Trump in Colorado and other states, hailed Bellows’ decision in Maine.
But it also acknowledged that the issue will ultimately be up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservatives have a 6-3 majority.
In a new filing, CREW formally asked the top court to take up the Colorado case as quickly as possible. The group asked for a decision by February, so it could take effect before mail-in voting starts in most Republican presidential primaries.
“This motion seeks to expedite the Court’s consideration ... so that the important question of Trump’s eligibility can be resolved by this Court before most primary voters cast their ballots,” CREW’s attorneys wrote in the filing. “[F]ast-approaching deadlines require quick resolution of all petitions for certiorari and, if granted, of the merits so that primary voters will know whether Trump is disqualified.”