Maine’s secretary of state is poised to issue a decision next week that could strengthen a citizen-led movement to keep former President Donald J. Trump out of primary elections across the country — or contradict a landmark court decision in Colorado this week.
At a hearing last week at the Maine State House in Augusta, Shenna Bellows, the secretary of state, weighed three separate complaints questioning Trump’s eligibility to appear in the state’s Republican primary. Two are based on the same section of the Constitution cited by the Colorado Supreme Court on Tuesday in its 4-3 decision that ruled Trump cannot hold office because of his actions leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Trump. the Capitol was tantamount to engaging in an insurrection.
Some form of challenge to Trump’s eligibility has been filed in more than 30 states, but many of those have already been rejected. Most are playing out in the courts, but in Maine – due to a quirk in its Constitution – the secretary of state has first weight, with voters filing petitions, not lawsuits. His decision can then be appealed to the state Superior Court.
The Colorado ruling was the first in history to disqualify a presidential candidate from a ballot under the 14th Amendment, which was drafted after the Civil War. One section of the amendment bars those who have sworn an oath to “support” the Constitution from holding office if they have “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against it” or have “given aid or comfort to its enemies.”
Trump’s campaign said it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court; If the High Court accepts the case, other challenges across the country are likely to be put on hold.
After the Colorado ruling, Ms. Bellows, an elected Democrat, invited lawyers from both sides to Maine file supplementary briefs and said his decision will likely come next week.
Republican primaries in Maine and Colorado are both scheduled for March 5, known as Super Tuesday because many states hold primaries that day. But states must begin sending ballots to service members and overseas voters 45 days before the federal election — Jan. 20, in the case of the March 5 primary — adding urgency to the situation.
If the Supreme Court agrees to hear Trump’s appeal, the Colorado court’s decision would not go into effect on Jan. 4 as expected, and Trump would remain eligible to appear on the ballot pending the outcome of the appeal, according to Colorado. state officials.
An appeal would also likely halt other efforts to keep him off the ballot across the country. But it was unclear this week what that would mean in Maine, where the trial so far is taking place outside the courts.
Under Maine law, registered voters can challenge a candidate’s ballot access by filing a petition with the secretary of state. The state received three such challenges to Trump’s voting eligibility: one from a group of former elected officials and two from individual residents.
Mark Brewer, chair of the political science department at the University of Maine, said little attention had been paid to complaints in Maine until the ruling in Colorado.
“Now everyone is trying to see where else this could happen,” he said.
Michigan’s challenge is also among those closely monitored. Lawyers for both sides have asked the state Supreme Court to rule next week, but the court could schedule oral hearings first, or wait to see if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the Colorado case.
Similar lawsuits brought by longtime Republican presidential candidate John Anthony Castro have been rejected by federal judges in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Florida, and dropped in a dozen other states.
Sworn in nearly three years ago as Maine’s first female secretary of state, Ms. Bellows grew up in tiny Hancock, Maine, and served two terms as a state senator. She is the former executive director of the nonprofit Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
Dr. Brewer said he couldn’t predict her decision, but noted that in her shoes he would have found it difficult to govern as the Colorado court did.
“Whatever you might think he did, the former president has not been charged with insurrection,” Dr. Brewer said in an interview. “Even if he had been charged, he still hasn’t had his day in court, so in the eyes of the law, he’s not guilty of anything.”
But Ethan Strimling, a former Portland mayor and Democratic state lawmaker who initiated one of the challenges with two former Republican state lawmakers, said the Colorado court’s decision changes that equation.
“There is no longer any truth to this argument, because two courts have now ruled that he incited the insurrection,” Strimling said, referring to the Colorado Supreme Court ruling and a lower court ruling that the preceded. “I think this creates great clarity.”
Trump’s lawyers argued in their subsequent brief that the Colorado decision should be irrelevant to the Maine proceedings because the two challenges are separate actions subject to different laws and standards and because the former president did not have “full and fair opportunity.” to dispute the facts in Colorado.
Furthermore, they reiterated, the Secretary of State does not have the legitimacy to exclude Trump from the Maine elections.
“The Constitution reserves exclusively to the Electoral College and Congress the power to determine whether a person may serve as president,” they said in a closing statement last week. “The challengers are effectively asking the secretary to strip those institutions of the power to resolve Section Three problems.”
While two of the three challenges in Maine focus on the 14th Amendment, the third, brought by Paul Gordon, a Portland attorney, argues that Trump should be deemed ineligible to run on the ballot under the 22nd Amendment, which says that “no person “should be elected to the office of president more than twice.” The basis of his argument is that Trump has repeatedly claimed that he won the 2020 election.
Trump could “remove this obstacle” to qualify for the runoff, Gordon said in his complaint, “by acknowledging that he lost the 2020 election and repudiating all prior statements that undermine the integrity of that election.”
Nick Corasaniti, Ernesto Londono AND Mitch Smith contributed to the reporting.