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Trump's candidacy is challenged by a group of Illinois residents

Donald Trump speaking at a December 19, 2023 rally in Waterloo, Iowa
Charlie Neibergall
/
Associated Press
Donald Trump speaking at a December 19, 2023 rally in Waterloo, Iowa

Five people working with a voting rights organization filed a formal objection, making Illinois the 18th state challenging Trump over his ties to the 2021 insurrection.

Five voters formally objected to former President Donald Trump’s newly-filed state nominating petitions Thursday, citing his role fomenting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in 2021 and now adding Illinois to the national debate about Trump’s legal status as a presidential candidate.

In a filing obtained exclusively by WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times, the objectors believe Trump is disqualified as a presidential candidate and want the State Board of Elections to block him from appearing on Illinois’ March 19 primary and Nov. 5 general election ballots.

They argue that Trump is disqualified by a provision in the 14th Amendment that bars insurrectionists from holding public office, claiming he encouraged rioters to swarm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to block Democrat Joe Bidren’s certification as president.

The state election board has openly questioned its authority to invoke the constitutional insurrection clause as a basis to sack a presidential candidate. The agency has suggested the dispute is one that Illinois’ courts or its legislature needs to resolve.

But the objectors believe the state elections board does have the legal standing to take on the question, though their arguments ultimately may land in a court of law, as similar disputes in other states involving Trump have.

Those arguing against Trump’s eligibility are part of what their lawyers say is a “diverse group of voters” from Chicago, north suburban Lindenhurst and downstate Fairview Heights and Colfax. They are being represented by the non-partisan voting-rights organization, Free Speech for People, and two Chicago law firms.

“We’re not engaging in politics here. We’re engaging in the application of constitutional principles,” said attorney Matthew Piers, a civil rights and constitutional law attorney and president of the Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym law firm, which helped draft the objection.

“The law must be obeyed. And if the laws aren’t obeyed, you lose your constitutional democracy. It’s really just that simple,” said Piers, the one-time deputy corporation counsel under former Mayor Harold Washington.

The group’s complaint was filed after Trump’s campaign tendered signatures with the State Board of Elections on the first day that major-party presidential candidates can submit papers to be on the March primary ballot.

Insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump riot outside the capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
John Minchillo
/
Associated Press
Insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump riot outside the capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Lawsuits seeking to block Trump from the ballot because of the insurrection provision in the Constitution are pending in 15 other states, according to Lawfare, a nonpartisan, nonprofit law and policy analysis publication tracking litigation targeting Trump’s candidacy.

That total is in addition to the Illinois filing and to the two states that already have ruled Trump ineligible for the 2024 ballot — Colorado and Maine.

As a Democratically-led state, Illinois could be a politically hospitable legal venue for a similar challenge.

If the State Board of Elections sidesteps the question, the dispute could move into a state court system governed by the Illinois Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a 5-2 majority.

Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to the development in Illinois, but it has not minced words when the eligibility issue arose in other states, characterizing attempts to block Trump from the ballot as a “hostile assault on American democracy.”

The former president’s lawyers filed an appeal Tuesday in Maine to challenge a decision by that state’s secretary of state to disqualify Trump. And on Wednesday, they sought the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention to overturn the Colorado Supreme Court’s mid-December decision that Trump is ineligible to run.

Elsewhere, courts in Minnesota and Michigan decided Trump can’t be excluded from the Republican primary ballot but left open the possibility he could be challenged in the fall if he wins the GOP presidential nomination. The Oregon Supreme Court is still weighing the question.

As the debate over Trump’s eligibility has flared outside Illinois, key Democratic leaders in Illinois have mostly stayed quiet about whether Trump should be removed from ballots as a candidate. Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s campaign issued a statement to WBEZ condemning Trump.

“Trump’s blatant incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection makes him absolutely unfit to hold office,” Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Christina Amestoy said. “Courts need to decide on the merits of these arguments. But regardless of how these efforts play out in court, voters know this and will reject Trump’s anti-democratic, anti-freedom ideology once again in November.”

At the core of the challenge to Trump is language contained within Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ratified in 1868, after the Civil War, the amendment bars runs for public office by candidates who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States Constitution or have “given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”

“The framers of the 14th Amendment designed it specifically to address this very scenario where someone who has taken the oath of office and then engaged in insurrection is barred from future public office because they are a threat to the republic,” said John Bonifaz, co-founder and president of Free Speech for People, which helped craft the Illinois case.

“Ex-confederates who had taken that oath and then led the insurrection first in our country, the Civil War … were viewed as threats to the republic,” he said. “We now have the second insurrection in our nation’s history, led by Donald Trump, and he is eminently disqualified under that provision of the Constitution for the very same reason.”

Bonifaz’s organization has waged similar legal battles against Trump’s legitimacy as a 2024 presidential candidate in Oregon, Minnesota and Michigan.

Some legal scholars believe the 14th Amendment has wiggle room for the U.S. Supreme Court to stop short of disqualifying Trump, but advocates behind the Illinois challenge believe Trump’s conduct before and during the assault on the Capitol leaves little room for debate.

“The facts are hard to dispute. There was an insurrection. There was a group of people that stormed the United States Congress, that threatened to kill the vice president and other high level officials, that were attempting to prevent the certification of the vote of the presidential election and that we’re doing so with the very active encouragement of the then-sitting president of the United States,” Piers said.

“Those facts — Trump brags about them. He embraces them. So, we have the facts…and the application of this [constitutional] provision, I think, follows quite clearly from those facts,” he said.

Under state election law, challenges to presidential nominating petitions can occur through Jan. 12.

But the state agency has in the past questioned its legal authority to invoke the 14th Amendment as a basis to knock a presidential candidate off the ballot, responding to inquiries with a letter saying, “any such disqualifying action would likely come from court order or statute enacted by the General Assembly.”

Piers contends, however, that the State Board of Election does have legal standing to decide Trump’s eligibility to be on Illinois’ ballot.

“The Illinois Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that the State Board of Elections has not only the authority but also the statutory duty to make sure that candidates who are barred from office under the Constitution not appear on the ballot,” he said. “Any statement to the contrary by representatives of the board is simply incorrect as a matter of law.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois government and politics for WBEZ and was the long-time Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.