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Supreme Court hears arguments over whether Trump qualifies to run for president


The Supreme Court turned a skeptical eye today toward Colorado voters hoping to disqualify former President Donald Trump from the primary ballot. The justices asked whether a single state should be able to bar the Republican front-runner with cascading effects for the rest of the country. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson watched those arguments from inside the courtroom, and she is here in the studio now. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: So the Colorado Supreme Court barred Trump from the state primary ballot back in December after finding that he engaged in an insurrection on and around January 6. How likely is that ruling to survive today's challenge?

JOHNSON: Not likely at all. Justices from across the spectrum today were very tough. And while I can't offer a firm prediction based on their questions alone, it looks like Donald Trump had a very good day in court. Justice Brett Kavanaugh got right to the heart of the matter.


BRETT KAVANAUGH: What about the idea that we should think about democracy, think about the right of the people to elect candidates of their choice, of letting the people decide?

JOHNSON: The lawyer for the Colorado voters, Jason Murray, responded that Trump disenfranchised 80 million voters when he tried to cling to power three years ago, and there's nothing in the Constitution that means he needs to get a second chance now.

SHAPIRO: As we've been hearing, the central legal issue revolves around part of the 14th Amendment passed after the Civil War to keep Confederates out of office. How much did that history and the text of the amendment come up today?

JOHNSON: There was a lot of debate about what the framers were thinking and why they chose the words they did. The main argument from Jonathan Mitchell, the lawyer for Donald Trump, was that language in the provision really matters a lot. He said the president is not an officer of the United States because a president is elected, not appointed. And Mitchell appeared to get the support of several justices there, including, in a bit of a surprise, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was appointed by President Biden. She said part of that amendment talked about a number of government officials, like senators and House members and presidential electors, and the president was not on that list in the 14th Amendment.

SHAPIRO: Well, this case is about Colorado and its ballot, narrowly speaking. But no matter what the Supreme Court decides, the decision is likely to reverberate across the country, right?

JOHNSON: It absolutely will. Many state officials are watching and waiting to see what the Supreme Court does here. A lot of the justices seemed uncomfortable about one state having the power to move first and reshape a presidential election. Justice Elena Kagan, an appointee of President Obama, came back to that point again and again today.


ELENA KAGAN: I think that the question that you have to confront is why a single state should decide who gets to be president of the United States. Why should a single state have the ability to make this determination not only for their own citizens, but for the rest of the nation?

SHAPIRO: I know you were watching Chief Justice John Roberts in particular. What did he ask about, and what do you think that signaled?

JOHNSON: The chief justice brought up the idea of other states engaging in some tit for tat, maybe blocking the Democratic front-runner from the ballot by arguing he engaged in an insurrection. But the lawyer for Colorado voters said that shouldn't be a worry. This part of the Constitution, he said, has been dormant for 150 years because nothing like January 6 has happened. But Justice Samuel Alito said impeachments used to be rare things, too, until they weren't over the past few decades.

SHAPIRO: Any response from Trump today?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Former President Trump did not appear at the Supreme Court, but he did send out fundraising messages about the argument. He spoke this afternoon from his Florida resort.


DONALD TRUMP: Well, I'm a believer in our country, and I'm a believer in the Supreme Court. I listened today, and I thought our arguments were very, very strong.

SHAPIRO: Carries, the Supreme Court took this case on an expedited timeline. Any sense of when we might expect a ruling?

JOHNSON: They haven't offered any timetable, but a lot of election experts have been asking the justices to move quickly here because the Super Tuesday primaries are set for early March. Millions of people are going to be voting then, and election officials deserve some clarity. Ari, though, Donald Trump may be back at the Supreme Court as early as next week over that ruling that he does not enjoy presidential immunity and complete immunity from criminal prosecution in the January 6 case against him there.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Carrie Johnson on today's arguments at the Supreme Court. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.