The Republican Supreme Court That McConnell Created Makes Law

Heather Cox Richardson

Today the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states cannot remove Donald Trump from the 2024 presidential ballot. Colorado officials, as well as officials from other states, had challenged Trump’s ability to run for the presidency, noting that the third section of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits those who have engaged in insurrection after taking an oath to support the Constitution from holding office. The court concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment leaves the question of enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment up to Congress. 

But the court didn’t stop there. It sidestepped the question of whether the events of January 6, 2021, were an insurrection, declining to reverse Colorado’s finding that Trump was an insurrectionist.

In those decisions, the court was unanimous.

But then five of the justices cast themselves off from the other four. Those five went on to “decide novel constitutional questions to insulate this Court and petitioner from future controversy,” as the three dissenting liberal judges put it. The five described what they believed could disqualify from office someone who had participated in an insurrection: a specific type of legislation.

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ketanji Brown Jackson in one concurrence, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett in another, note that the majority went beyond what was necessary in this expansion of its decision. “By resolving these and other questions, the majority attempts to insulate all alleged insurrectionists from future challenges to their holding federal office,” Kagan, Sotomayor, and Jackson wrote. Seeming to criticize those three of her colleagues as much as the majority, Barrett wrote: “This is not the time to amplify disagreement with stridency…. [W]ritings on the Court should turn the national temperature down, not up.” 

Conservative judge J. Michael Luttig wrote that “in the course of unnecessarily deciding all of these questions when they were not even presented by the case, the five-Justice majority effectively decided not only that the former president will never be subject to disqualification, but that no person who ever engages in an insurrection against the Constitution of the United States in the future will be disqualified under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Disqualification Clause.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife, Ginni, participated in the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, notably did not recuse himself from participating in the case.

There is, perhaps, a larger story behind the majority’s musings on future congressional actions. Its decision to go beyond what was required to decide a specific question and suggest the boundaries of future legislation pushed it from judicial review into the realm of lawmaking. 

For years now, Republicans, especially Republican senators who have turned the previously rarely-used filibuster into a common tool, have stopped Congress from making laws and have instead thrown decision-making to the courts. 

Two days ago, in Slate, legal analyst Mark Joseph Stern noted that when Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was Senate majority leader, he “realized you don’t need to win elections to enact Republican policy. You don’t need to change hearts and minds. You don’t need to push ballot initiatives or win over the views of the people. All you have to do is stack the courts. You only need 51 votes in the Senate to stack the courts with far-right partisan activists…[a]nd they will enact Republican policies under the guise of judicial review, policies that could never pass through the democratic process. And those policies will be bulletproof, because they will be called ‘law.’”

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