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Supreme Court is called to weigh in on Trump's eligibility to appear on 2024 ballot

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Supreme Court is being asked to consider an existential question about Donald Trump. Should the former president be disqualified from the ballot next year because of his role in the January 6 riot? That is just one of the disputes the justices may be forced to weigh in on in 2024. With us to talk about the other cases is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Carrie, last night an official in the state of Maine booted Donald Trump from the Republican primary ballot following a similar ruling from a court in the state of Colorado. How is this issue making its way to the Supreme Court?

JOHNSON: As you said, Maine's secretary of state has disqualified Trump from the GOP ballot because she found he engaged in insurrection for the purposes of the 14th Amendment. The Republican Party in Colorado has already asked the High Court to weigh in after a Colorado court also yanked Trump from the ballot this month. Voters in that state are asking the justices to move very quickly. Time is of the essence here because there's now a conflict among states that have considered the idea of whether Trump should appear on the ballot in 2024.

SUMMERS: Right. And, Carrie, what are the threshold questions for the Supreme Court?

JOHNSON: That provision of the 14th Amendment was adopted after the Civil War to keep Confederates out of office. One big question is, does it apply to the office of the president? Does Congress need to take action or can a state official disqualify a candidate on their own? And does a former official need to be convicted of a crime before any of this applies? Legal scholars disagree. Here's how election expert David Becker put it to Morning Edition today.

DAVID BECKER: It's essential that a clear ruling is issued by the United States Supreme Court as soon as possible, not just for the voters, but also for election officials who are starting to print ballots up for the primaries and also for the Republican Party that needs to know whether or not it has a candidate that is qualified to serve as president of the United States.

SUMMERS: And, Carrie, former President Trump's other legal problems could also wind up on the court docket in the next couple of weeks. Tell us what you're watching.

JOHNSON: Special Counsel Jack Smith, who's prosecuting Trump for allegedly trying to overturn the last election, had asked the Supreme Court to fast-track a key issue in his case. Trump says he has absolute immunity from prosecution because he was president at the time of January 6. The Supreme Court rejected the effort to leapfrog a lower court and decide that issue now. But after the appeals court in D.C. rules, maybe as soon as the end of January or February, one or both sides may ask the High Court to consider the issue again. Now, it's possible the court will just let the appeals court ruling stand. But many justices have been interested in the scope of presidential power, so they may want to take up the case. And this all matters because the trial has been set for March. If there's a long delay, it's possible the trial may not start until the heart of the summer, which coincides with the Republican Party convention.

SUMMERS: That's right. And, Carrie, I mean, the Supreme Court has weathered a lot of controversy this year after ethics scandals involving some of the justices. Public opinion about the court has plunged after the court took away the right to abortion last term. And now, all of this, it's going to put the court back in the spotlight, right?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. The court may try to stay out of some of these issues. It could duck that immunity question and also rule narrowly in a separate case about what constitutes obstruction of an official proceeding. That's a charge prosecutors have used 300 times against Capitol rioters, and Trump faces two related charges as well. But it's hard to see how the Supreme Court stays out of election matters altogether. It's in a position where it might decide the outcome of the next election, and public confidence in the court is a lot more negative now than it was in 2000, when the court stopped the recount of that election in Florida and handed the White House to George W. Bush.

SUMMERS: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks as always.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.