Election 2024: Forfeit

When I was growing up, if you’d asked what “9-0” meant to me, I’d have instantly responded that it was the official score of a major league baseball game in which one team has forfeited.

Forfeits are awfully rare. I remember the one in 1977, the debut season of my beloved Blue Jays, when Earl Weaver pulled his Orioles off the field at Exhibition Stadium over purported safety concerns, leading the umpires to award the game to the Jays. There have been only two since then: the infamous Disco Demolition game at Comiskey in 1979; and a game in 1995 when baseballs had been given out at the door (oops!) and the Dodger fans threw them on the field.

Given this rarity, as an adult “9-0” has come to mean something rather different to me: a unanimous SCOTUS decision. Yesterday we had one of those, in Trump v. Anderson, but at the same time it also feels like a forfeiture.

From the standpoint of form, the Court’s opinion is unusual. It is styled as a per curiam opinion, which is uncommon, particularly with respect to a case that reached the oral argument stage: there was only one such instance last term, in Gonzalez v. Google. Additionally, and somewhat unusually for a per curiam decision, there were two additional signed opinions, both of which are technically concurrences: one from Barrett, and one from the three liberal judges.

All 9 justices agreed on a core holding that, based on the oral argument, was relatively easy to foresee: while a state can disqualify a candidate for state office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, there is no state role in assessing the qualifications of a candidate for federal office under Section 3. That holding is sufficient to resolve the Colorado lawsuit, and all other state challenges to Trump’s placement on the 2024 ballot.

In light of that jurisdictional holding, the Court’s opinion is completely silent on another question that was hotly debated, namely whether or not the Presidency even falls within Section 3’s scope. Nor, with this holding, did the Court have any reason to ever discuss the factual finding at the Colorado District Court level that Trump’s Jan 6th conduct makes him an “oath-breaking insurrectionist.”

However, the per curiam opinion does go beyond the minimal holding necessary to resolve the case, in a manner that attracted the ire of the 3 liberal justices and that as a practical matter appears to forfeit any ability to apply Section 3 in the 2024 election and possibly beyond. Quoting from the liberals’ quasi-dissent:

“[F]ive justices … decide novel constitutional questions to insulate this Court and petitioner from future controversy. Although only an individual State’s action is at issue here, the majority opines on which federal actors can enforce Section 3, and how they must do so. The majority announces that a disqualification for insurrection can occur only when Congress enacts a particular kind of legislation pursuant to Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the majority shuts the door on other potential means of federal enforcement. We cannot join an opinion that decides momentous and difficult issues unnecessarily, and we therefore concur only in the judgment.

In short: Per a majority of the Court, the path to enforcing Section 3 against a federal officeholder necessarily involves Congressional legislation under Section 5, which legislation in turn needs to meet the Court’s “congruence and proportionality” test articulated in its 1997 decision, Boerne v. Flores (hence the liberals’ reference above to “a particular kind of legislation”). Barrett joins the liberals in saying that issue shouldn’t have been reached (hence the reference above to “five justices”).

A criticism of this decision is that it seems incoherent for the Constitution to specifically require a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress to reinstate an ineligible insurrectionist’s right to hold federal office, while at the same time giving a majority in either house the ability to prevent an individual from being identified as an ineligible insurrectionist in the first place, simply by its refusal to enact implementing legislation under Section 5. Yet, that view is now the law of the land.

There is also an interesting passage in the per curiam opinion:

The disruption would be all the more acute—and could nullify the votes of millions and change the election result—if Section 3 enforcement were attempted after the Nation has voted. Nothing in the Constitution requires that we endure such chaos…

This seems to be saying, sotto voce, that (contrary to the views of many amici) Congress cannot use Trump’s putative status as an oath-breaking insurrectionist as justification for not counting electoral votes cast for him when Congress fulfills its duties on January 6, 2025.

As such, other than death, there appears to be no further potential impediment to a Trump-Biden rematch on all states’ ballots in November 2024 – a rematch in which, per the latest NYTimes poll, the candidate who was recently fined upwards of a half-a-billion dollars, still faces 91 criminal charges in 4 different jurisdictions, and was recently named the worst President of all time by a panel of political scientists leads 48-43.

What a country.