(WASHINGTON) — A state judge in New Mexico has removed a county commissioner from office after ruling that — because he participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — the U.S. Constitution barred him for engaging in an “insurrection.”
It is the first time an elected official directly associated with the attack has been disqualified from serving in public office on those grounds.
New Mexico District Court Judge Francis Mathew barred Otero County commissioner and “Cowboys for Trump” founder Couy Griffin, citing a clause in the 14th Amendment that prohibits those who have engaged in insurrection from serving — the only time in 150 years that the provision has been used to disqualify an official and the first time that a court has ruled the events of Jan. 6 were an “insurrection.”
Griffin “incited, encouraged and helped normalize the violence,” Mathew wrote, calling his actions “overt acts in support of the insurrection.”
Some constitutional experts have suggested the section of the law — despite unsuccessful attempts to invoke the same provision against GOP members of Congress and other Trump-backed candidates earlier this year — may have wide-ranging implications, especially for former President Donald Trump if he runs again for the White House.
“Just the fact that this has happened one time, if it stands up on appeal, makes the future challenges more credible than if no one had ever been disqualified for their participation in January 6 … Up until now it seemed like more of a hypothetical,” said Gerard Magliocca, a constitutional scholar at Indiana University who has studied Section 3 of the The Reconstruction-era amendment.
“If Griffin is disqualified, then it’s a little hard to see why Trump wouldn’t be disqualified,” he added.
Known as the “Disqualification Clause,” the provision bars any person from holding federal office who has previously taken an oath to protect the Constitution — including a member of Congress — who has “engaged in insurrection” against the United States or “given aid or comfort” to its “enemies.”
“Griffin, as an Otero County Commissioner since January 2019, took an oath to “support and uphold the Constitution and laws of the State of New Mexico, and the Constitution of the United States,” Matthew wrote in his opinion.
Convicted earlier this year for trespassing on U.S. Capitol grounds, Griffin refused to certify the state’s primary election results in Otero County in June. He’s now banned from holding any future state or federal elected positions, Mathew ruled.
“You know, they’re, they’re trying to get all of this legal framework in place, because they’re gonna use it against President Trump,” said Griffin in early July during an Otero County Commission special session, where he presented a motion for the county to pay his legal expenses in the lawsuit.
“We can make a stand right here, we can make a stand on a county level. We could fight back,” he said.
During the meeting, Griffin said that he hadn’t gotten any help from Trump-related groups or the former president himself.
“I’m disappointed in President Trump as well. I’m disappointed that I don’t have any more support from their side … it really feels like I’ve been fed to the wolves and along in a lot of ways,” he said.
The decision came in a lawsuit brought by a group of New Mexico residents represented by the government accountability group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and other lawyers.
“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,” CREW President Noah Bookbinder said in a statement. “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.”
The last time elected officials were disqualified from office using the constitutional clause appears to be after the Civil War in 1869, according to CREW, after the ratification of the 14th Amendment.
Similar constitutional arguments have been made, but have failed to persuade judges in Georgia and North Carolina, against GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Madison Cawthorn. The latter’s case was ultimately halted after he lost in the primary contest for his reelection bid.
Magliocca, a constitutional scholar at Indiana University and who testified at Greene’s hearing, noted that the challenge to Griffin — compared to those against Greene and Cawthorn — may have succeeded because he was a local official.
“Another difference is Mr. Griffin was an official, not a candidate … so that’s simpler. Because, you know, you’re not dealing with an election, you’re not dealing with a, you know, some very short deadline that you need to make a decision by,” said Magliocca.
“But also, the other thing is, in some instances, you can say that the participation that can be proved for one individual versus another is greater or less. And I think, in Mr. Griffin’s case, the court found a lot of facts,” he said.
Tuesday’s ruling is a test case for inevitable challenges to Trump’s ballot eligibility if he plans to make another White House bid, retired Harvard Law professor and constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe told ABC News, which he said may be more effective in keeping him out of office than by means of legal prosecution.
“It’s in response to an extraordinary event, which we hope won’t be repeated. I think it shows that there is an alternative path to holding people accountable besides a criminal prosecution,” said Tribe.
Still, one of the most significant aspects of Tuesday’s decision is that it declares formally that what happened Jan. 6 was an insurrection within the meaning of the Constitution, according to Tribe and Magliocca.
“It’s a wake-up call. I mean, it’s not that the courts needed this opinion in order to read the Constitution, we can all read it. But now, there’s an example. It’s really the difference between something that may be a dead letter and something that has actually been resurrected and used successfully,” Tribe said.
“And I think that’s going to encourage people in other contexts to invoke the Fourteenth. It would be premature for anybody to predict that this is the beginning of the end for everyone who was involved in trying to overturn the 2020 election, but it’s certainly a start,” he added.
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