Can Michigan activists keep Trump off the ballot? A judge heard arguments today

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FILE - Former President Donald Trump waits to take the witness stand during his civil fraud trial at New York Supreme Court, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in New York. A judge in Michigan is expected to hear arguments as to whether or not Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has the authority to keep Trumps name off any state ballot for president. Activists are suing Benson in the Michigan Court of Claims to force her to keep Trumps name off ballots.(Brendan McDermid/Pool Photo via AP)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – A judge in Michigan heard arguments Thursday on whether Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has the authority to keep Donald Trump’s name off state ballots for president.

Activists sued Benson in the Michigan Court of Claims to force her to keep Trump’s name off ballots and to assess Trump’s constitutional qualifications to serve a second term as president.

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Meanwhile, attorneys for the former president demanded that Trump's name be allowed on the 2024 Republican presidential primary ballot.

Arguments in three separate cases started Thursday morning in Grand Rapids before Judge James Robert Redford, who, at the end of the hearings, told the parties that he “will act with all possible deliberate speed to figure out what should happen next.”

Redford said he will issue written opinions, but did not give time frame for when that will occur.

He also alluded to expecting some type of appeal.

“I fully recognize I am not the last word on whatever happens in this case,” he said.

Activists in two separate suits point to a section of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment that prohibits a person from running for federal office if they have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the U.S. or given aid or comfort to those who have.

Liberal groups have filed similar lawsuits in Colorado and Minnesota to also bar Trump from the ballot, portraying him as the inciter of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was intended to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election win.

The groups cite a rarely used constitutional prohibition against holding office for those who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution but then “engaged in insurrection” against it. The two-sentence clause in the 14th Amendment has been used only a handful of times since the years after the Civil War.

But the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit citing the provision. The court's ruling said its decision applied only to the state’s primary.

Free Speech For People, a group representing petitioners before the Minnesota Supreme Court, also represents petitioners in one of the Michigan cases against Benson.

Trump is considered the leading candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Benson has already said in a filing that Michigan’s Legislature does not give her the authority to determine whether a candidate for president may be disqualified for the state ballot under the 14th Amendment or to assess a candidate's constitutional qualifications to serve as president.

It's a “federal constitutional question of enormous consequence” whether Trump cannot appear as a presidential candidate on state ballots, Benson wrote. “Michigan courts have held that administrative agencies generally do not have the power to determine constitutional questions.”

However, she said that she will follow the direction of the court either way.

On Thursday, Benson attorney Heather Meingast said they are not arguing “one way or the other” on Trump's eligibility. “It’s simply not our call,” she said.

Trump attorney Michael Columbo argued that his legal team has found no case that involves a court striking a presidential candidate from a ballot “over a disputed disqualification.”

“There is a lack of judicial standards,” Columbo said. “There is a lack of clarity here over what kind of conduct constitutes disqualifying conduct under Section Three (of the 14th Amendment). Under Michigan law, right now, there’s nothing to guide the secretary.”

Nationally, “we can't have Section Three meaning different things in different states,” he added. "This would just wreak havoc and chaos on our federal presidential elections.”

But Mark Brewer, an attorney for activists in one of the lawsuits, said Michigan case law gives voters the right to question candidates’ eligibility and “through a judicial process, knock them off the ballot.”

“In Minnesota, there is no such provision that gives voters standing to question the eligibility of candidates,” said Brewer, who expects that within days of Redford issuing an opinion the matter will be appealed.

“We will be on the Michigan Supreme Court and then after the United States Supreme Court," Brewer said. “It will be resolved.”

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