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Superior Court judge effectively delays decision on Donald Trump's ballot status in Maine

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally, July 29, 2023, in Erie, Pa. The indictment of Donald Trump for attempting to overturn his election defeat is a new front in what Joe Biden has described as the battle for American democracy. It's the issue that Biden has described as the most consequential struggle of his presidency. The criminal charges are a reminder of the stakes of next year's campaign, when Trump is hoping for a rematch with Biden.
Sue Ogrocki
AP file
Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally, July 29, 2023, in Erie, Pa.

A Maine judge has effectively shelved a case challenging former President Donald Trump’s eligibility for the state’s Republican primary until after the U.S. Supreme Court decides a similar case from Colorado.

Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy sent the case back to Secretary of State Shenna Bellows but ordered Bellows to wait for a Supreme Court ruling in the Colorado case before “modifying, withdrawing or confirming” her original decision.

Murphy’s ruling means that Trump’s name will, in all likelihood, still appear on Maine’s Republican ballot given the tight timeline between the Supreme Court’s Feb. 8 hearing and the March 5 primary. Bellows had cited the federal constitution's insurrection clause in ruling last month that his name should be removed from Maine's ballot, but she had suspended enforcement of her decision while the appeals played out.

With her decision, Murphy avoided having to rule on the complex constitutional issues raised by attorneys on both sides in cases filed in Maine and more than a dozen other states.

Murphy wrote that putting the issue on hold in Maine “will promote consistency and avoid voter confusion in the weeks before the primary election.”

Murphy also wrote that it would be “imprudent” for her to rule before the Supreme Court because of the unprecedented federal issues contained in the Colorado case, known as Anderson v. Griswold.

“Put simply, the United States Supreme Court’s acceptance of the Colorado case changes everything about the order in which these issues should be decided, and by which court,” Murphy wrote. “And while it is impossible to know what the Supreme Court will decide, hopefully it will at least clarify what role, if any, state decision-makers, including secretaries of state and state judicial officers, play in adjudicating claims of disqualification brought under Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Bellows’ office declined to comment on Murphy’s ruling on Wednesday.

The Dec. 28 decision by Bellowsplaced Maine at the forefront (alongside Colorado) of the high-stakes political and legal battle over whether Trump should be disqualified for the 2024 ballot because of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

Bellows ruled Trump’s name should be removed from the GOP ballot under the insurrection clause added to the constitution after the Civil War prohibiting people from holding public office if they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the U.S. or had “given aid or comfort to enemies thereof.”

In particular, Bellows said the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol “occurred at the behest of, and with the knowledge and support of, the outgoing president.”

“I am mindful that no Secretary of State has ever deprived a presidential candidate of ballot access based on Section Three of the 14th Amendment,” Bellows wrote in her December ruling. “I am also mindful, however, that no presidential candidate has ever before engaged in insurrection.”

In their appeal filed several days later, Trump’s legal team argued that the secretary of state had no legal authority to consider a federal constitutional issue. Repeating arguments made in the Colorado case, they also disputed the insurrection clause’s applicability to Trump either as president or as a candidate for president.

The Trump camp also accused Bellows of bias, suggesting that the Democrat should have recused herself based on her previous statements critical of Trump and her support for President Joe Biden.

Bellows became a target for GOP criticism as well as threats and even a “swatting” incident at her house. But even some Democratic leaders in Maine, including Gov. Janet Mills and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, said they disagreed with her decision to remove Trump. Republicans in the state Legislature also tried to impeach Bellows, but the push was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Maine House.

For her part, Bellows argued that she was obligated under Maine’s law to consider Trump’s eligibility after five voters filed official challenges of his ballot status. Her decision came nine days after Colorado’s Supreme Court disqualified Trump from that state’s primary ballot for the same reasons.

State law required Murphy to issue her ruling by Wednesday, which is 20 days from Bellows’ original decision to remove Trump.

In their appeal, the former president’s legal team had asked Murphy to suspend all proceedings until after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Colorado case. Bellows, meanwhile, argued that Maine’s law required a decision by Jan. 17 and that waiting for the Supreme Court would cause confusion while potentially forcing election officials to make last-minute changes.

Murphy appeared to thread that needle. While she agreed with state law does not allow her to ignore the 20-day timeline for issuing a decision, Murphy added that the law does allow her to send the case back to Bellows with instructions to delay any additional action until after the high court’s ruling.

“The court believes it is essential to factor in the risk of voter confusion should multiple administrative or judicial decisions addressing President Trump’s eligibility to appear on the primary ballot issue before the Supreme Court rules in Anderson,” Murphy wrote. “While much remains uncertain, the court concludes that the agreement of the parties regarding the stay of the secretary’s ruling, in conjunction with this remand, minimizes any potentially destabilizing effect of inconsistent decisions and will promote greater predictability in the weeks ahead of the primary election.”

Bellows’ office or the challengers in the case have three days to appeal Murphy’s decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The Law Court would then be required rule on the case within 14 days of Wednesday’s Superior Court decision, according to the timeline laid out in the law.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.
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