The push to bar former President Donald Trump from the 2024 ballot has come to New Jersey, with a Mahwah man arguing the former president is constitutionally prohibited from running for office because of his role in the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The man’s complaint is one of several filed nationwide arguing Trump should be barred from appearing on the ballot under the 14th Amendment, with similar legal efforts mounted in California, Colorado, and Minnesota, among others. Trump has attacked the effort as “ridiculous” and unconstitutional.
The legal theory behind the challenges cites Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bars from office anyone who has previously taken an oath to defend the Constitution and has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion.” Trump’s involvement in encouraging his supporters to riot at the Capitol, proponents of the theory say, disqualifies him from seeking the presidency.
Rutgers University Newark law professor Ronald Chen said Section 3 is a provision “no one has ever paid much attention to” since the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution three years after the end of the Civil War.
“It’s been 160-some-odd years since this has been enforced, so no one truly knows the answer to this,” Chen said.
John Bellocchio, a former history teacher who is behind the New Jersey challenge to Trump’s ballot eligibility, said this is “not about Donald Trump” and it’s “not a partisan issue.” Bellocchio said he is an unaffiliated voter.
“This is to protect government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It’s about stopping a movement,” Bellocchio said. “It’s about forcing New Jersey to finally put principle over politics.”
The complaint, filed in state Superior Court in Mercer County, names Lt. Gov. Tahesha Way, who is also the secretary of state, and Donna Barber, the director of the state’s elections divisions, as the defendants. Way is responsible for accepting candidate filings and reviewing their compliance. Her spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
Polls show Trump is the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination for president and is tied or nearly tied in general election matchups with President Joe Biden.
The push to exclude Trump from the ballot in 2024 began in earnest with an August University of Pennsylvania report from two conservative legal scholars who argued Section 3 empowers state election officials to remove Trump from the ballot.
Secretaries of state in at least three states have said they have no power to do so. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, said in a Wall Street Journal column that the attempt is “merely the newest way of attempting to short-circuit the ballot box” and questioned whether Section 3 was ever meant as a permanent standard.
“Anyone who believes in democracy must let the voters decide,” Raffensperger wrote.
Chen, who litigates civil rights and civil liberties cases for the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, also voiced skepticism over the legal challenges. He said it comes down to determining whether the 14th Amendment is “self-executing,” meaning federal officials can automatically enforce it.
Trump has been accused by federal prosecutors of taking illegal actions that led to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, but he has not been tried or convicted.
“It could have a dramatic impact if the courts begin to accept the argument that Section 3 is self-executing, which would limit a lot more people than just Donald Trump from holding elected office, although obviously, he’s the one we’re all wondering about,” Chen said.
He wonders what would happen if the case landed before the U.S. Supreme Court (Trump failed to move the Colorado lawsuit from state to federal court).
“Eventually we want some court to decide what’s self-executing, and if the U.S. Supreme Court does decide, it would be a fascinating legal issue that’s just been left on the back burner for 150, 160 years,” Chen said.
If Trump is knocked off any ballot, his supporters could write him in, Chen noted.
Bellocchio said he’s ready for the online vitriol headed his way from Trump supporters. He said he urges them to read the Constitution and vote for another qualified candidate.
“You want to nominate a Republican? Pick one, you got plenty. You got 13 of them. Pick one, nominate one, but not the insurrectionist. Not the man who let a crowd loose on the Capitol that resulted in the death of five,” he said. “This should give pause to the Republican Party.”