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Biden-Nominated Judge Overturns Trump Judge and Rules that Insurrectionists Can be Barred from Holding Public Office: Our Courts, Our Fight

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Biden-nominated Judge Toby Heytens wrote a decision that overturned a Trump district judge and held that citizens and states can act to bar people who take part in an insurrection as on January 6 from holding public office.  The case involved Madison Cawthorn, who recently lost his bid for re-election. It may become important in efforts to disqualify other January 6 insurrectionists from holding office.  The May 2022 Fourth Circuit ruling was in Cawthorn v Amalfi.


What’s the case about and what happened in the lower courts?                                                                                                                

Far-Right Republican Madison Cawthorn served as the Representative for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional district since 2021. When he ran for re-election in 2022, a group of North Carolina voters challenged his qualifications to run again under state law. They contended that the Fourteenth Amendment barred him from holding office because he had “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the US. The voters explained that Cawthorn had “encouraged the violent mob that disrupted” the national transfer of authority on January 6, 2021, constituting illegal “insurrection.”

Cawthorn claimed that the Amendment did not apply to him because of an 1872 law that lifted the “political disabilities” of the Fourteenth Amendment concerning those who had joined the Confederacy.  He filed suit against the state Board of Elections, which enforces the law. A Trump district judge agreed with Cawthorn and prohibited any action to disqualify him by the state board.


What happened on appeal?

On appeal, Judge Heytens reversed, in a decision joined in full by Judge James Wynn. The court agreed that the case was not moot because although Cawthorn lost the recent primary election, the state board had not yet certified the results. Heytens wrote that the “statutory text and context” made clear that the 1872 law lifted the Fourteenth Amendment bar “only for those whose constitutionally wrongful acts occurred before its enactment.” This included rebellion around or before the Civil War.

Trump judge Julius Richardson concurred on very narrow grounds. He claimed that the district court erred in even considering the case.  Under the Constitution, he maintained, only the House itself “shall be the judge” concerning elections of House members.

Judge Wynn explained in a separate concurrence the problems with this argument. Richardson’s opinion, he wrote, “creates a flawed blueprint for courts to stonewall” efforts at the state level to prevent constitutionally unqualified candidates from running. Neither precedent, the Constitution, nor “common sense”, Wynn stated, “support that irrational result.”


Why is the decision important?

 Although the voters defeated Cawthorn’s re-election bid, other contests remain pending involving Far-Right figures accused of participating in an improper January 6 rebellion. These include Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona. The ruling by Heytens could well “influence the outcome” of pending legal challenges to such candidates. Although Judge Heytens did not decide such issues as whether the January 6 events constitute a “rebellion” under the Fourteenth Amendment, his rejection of arguments by Trump judges clearly leaves the door open for such findings in future cases.

The case could thus become very important for the future of our democracy. It provides a significant example of the importance of the nomination and confirmation of quality federal appellate judges by President Biden as part of our fight for our courts.