The Constitution of the United States is very clear about what is supposed to happen to elected officials who engage in insurrection: They are supposed to be booted out of office, and barred from the ballots that might return them to office.
Article 14, Section 3, the “Disqualification Clause,” spells things out:
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.
An honest reading of the clause points to the indisputable conclusion that any elected official who incited an insurrection in order to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 election should be disqualified. But despite the best efforts of local activists, with support from groups such as Free Speech for People and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), to dislodge insurrectionists who supported Donald Trump’s attempted coup on January 6, 2021, constitutional accountability has been thwarted.
State District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled Tuesday that Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin, a founder of the group “Cowboys for Trump,” engaged in insurrection when he openly and aggressively took part in the attack on the Capitol and thereby disqualified himself from holding local, state, or federal office. The judge determined that Griffin had conducted “overt acts in support of the insurrection” when he “incited, encouraged and helped normalize the violence” on January 6. “The decision,” noted CREW, “marks the first time since 1869 that a court has disqualified a public official under Section 3, and the first time that any court has ruled that the events of January 6, 2021, were an insurrection.”
It cannot be the last. Going forward, said constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe, there should be recognition that “EVERYONE who engaged in storming the Capitol on 1/6/21 or who gave ‘aid or comfort’ to that ‘insurrection or rebellion’ after taking an oath ‘to support the Constitution of the United States’ is permanently disqualified.”
Judge Mathew had the courage to give a modern reading of the Constitution as it was amended after the Civil War, in order to assure that former officials who had joined the Confederacy did not return to positions of authority. The historical context is important, but the amendment’s language was not in any way limited to the Reconstruction Era. Judge Mathew recognized this, and his ruling should be understood as an essential assertion of the rule of law.
“This is a historic win for accountability for the January 6th insurrection and the efforts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power in the United States. Protecting American democracy means ensuring those who violate their oaths to the Constitution are held responsible,” declared CREW President Noah Bookbinder. “This decision makes clear that any current or former public officials who took an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution and then participated in the January 6th insurrection can and will be removed and barred from government service for their actions.”
Bookbinder explained in interviews that the judge’s ruling confirmed that officials and former officials who were involved in the “planning, mobilization and incitement” of January 6 violence, including Donald Trump, can be disqualified.
That is a vital point, because Trump is positioning for a 2024 presidential run. It also applies to Trump’s insurrectionist allies, including House members Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
There are no guarantees that other judges and election officials will have the courage and clarity that Judge Mathew displayed—but they should. And they’ll be prodded to do so by serious defenders of the Constitution. “Free Speech For People has committed to filing multiple Section 3 legal challenges to the candidacies of other insurrectionists (including, if he runs again, Donald Trump),” announced the group after Judge Mathew’s decision, “and CREW’s victory in New Mexico helps reaffirm longstanding legal principles that will underlie those challenges.”