Historical Precedent Resurfaces in Trump’s Legal Battle

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The echoes of Chief Justice Chase’s decisions from the Civil War will make Trump’s legal battle even harder. (Image Credit: CNN)

 In the heart of Richmond, Virginia, in December 1868, Chief Justice Salmon Chase made a pivotal decision in a packed courtroom, ruling that Jefferson Davis, the defeated Confederate President, should not face prosecution for treason. Unbeknownst to many at the time, Chase’s decision, along with another ruling the following year, is now resurfacing in the current legal dispute over whether former President Donald Trump should be barred from seeking office.

Chase’s rulings, both dealing with Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, play a significant role in court filings leading up to the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in Trump’s case next week. Section 3, enacted after the Civil War, aimed to prevent former government officials who joined the Confederacy from holding office, stating that those who engaged in insurrection or rebellion were disqualified from serving again.

The relevance of Chase’s decisions becomes apparent as the Supreme Court hears Trump’s plea not to be removed from the Republican primary ballot in Colorado. The state’s Supreme Court ruled that Trump is ineligible under Section 3 due to his role in attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, leading to the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack.

Legal experts weigh in on Chase’s historical decisions, emphasizing the importance of understanding the context of the time. Vikram Amar, a professor at the University of California Davis School of Law, notes that while no single case or justice may dominate the current narrative, considering prominent figures’ actions and statements from the past is crucial.

Chase, an anti-slavery Republican with presidential ambitions, faced a complex situation during Davis’ case. His ruling, seemingly politically driven, embraced an argument by Davis’ lawyers that Section 3 served as a form of punishment, barring any criminal prosecution without the need for additional legislation.

However, Chase’s stance took a turn in the following year when he ruled differently in a case involving a Black defendant, Caesar Griffin. Griffin argued that Section 3 applied to a Confederate judge in his case, but Chase asserted that legislative action by Congress was necessary for disqualification under the 14th Amendment.

Trump’s legal team cites Chase’s ruling in the Griffin case to argue for congressional enforcement legislation as the exclusive means for enforcing Section 3. However, opposing arguments claim that Chase’s opinion is non-binding and does not credibly support the claim that Section 3 is unenforceable in Trump’s case.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments in Trump’s case, the echoes of Chief Justice Chase’s decisions from the Civil War era add a historical layer to the ongoing legal battle over the former president’s eligibility for the 2024 election.

Written by Ava LeFevre

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