Joining an insurrection against the United States is grounds for disqualifying a public official from continuing to hold office, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
The decision is a significant blow for Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), who suffered a not-so-surprising trouncing in the GOP primary for his seat in North Carolina’s 11th District.
Before the defeat, Cawthorn, an extremist Republican and staunch Trump ally, was challenged by North Carolina voters who argued that the lawmaker’s role in inciting the violent mob that later stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was enough reason to ban him from ever holding public office again under the 14th Amendment.
No person shall … hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath … 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," the amendment states clearly.
Cawthorn sued the North Carolina State Board of Elections in February to stop officials from entertaining any requests to re-examine his eligibility to run for reelection. The Republican lawmaker argued that an amnesty law Congress passed in 1872 meant that the disqualification language in the 14th amendment didn’t apply to future insurrectionists, according to BuzzFeed.
On Tuesday, a panel of judges at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff voters and ruled against Cawthorn. One of the court's three-judge panel, Judge Toby Heytens, wrote, “The issue currently before us is whether that same 1872 legislation also prospectively lifted the constitutional disqualification for all future rebels or insurrectionists, no matter their conduct. To ask such a question is nearly to answer it.”
“The available evidence suggests that the Congress that enacted the 1872 Amnesty Act was, understandably, laser-focused on the then-pressing problems posed by the hordes of former Confederates seeking forgiveness,” Heyten added.
“We hold that the 1872 Amnesty Act removed the Fourteenth Amendment’s eligibility bar only for those whose constitutionally wrongful acts occurred before its enactment,” the ruling read.
Cawthorn argued that the case was moot because he had long since lost and conceded the race to his rival, but the court disagreed because the election results hadn’t been certified yet; therefore, the issue could reappear in another campaign, per the Daily Mail.
However, the court didn’t include any language in its ruling that indicated the judiciary considered the January 6 riot an insurrection, or whether the efforts of Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election results could disqualify them from holding office.
Free Speech for People, an advocacy group that backed the voters' challenges to Cawthorn, hailed the ruling as a major victory in its statement. “This ruling cements the growing judicial consensus that the 1872 Amnesty Act does not shield the insurrectionists of 6 January 2021 – including Donald Trump – from the consequences of their actions.”
The group has brought similar cases against other Republicans closely tied to the horrific events of January 6: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), and Mark Finchem, an Arizona state representative.
Neither of these cases has been successful.