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14th Amendment misused in Griffin’s ouster


The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, was one of three changes made to the Constitution during the Reconstruction Era designed to ensure that southern states didn’t slip back into their old ways.

The most controversial section these days is probably the provision granting citizenship to anyone born in the country. But, it was a more obscure section that was highlighted in a New Mexico courtroom earlier this month.

In an attempt to keep former Confederate officers and political leaders from regaining power, the amendment prohibits anyone from being elected or appointed to public office, “after engaging in rebellion or treason.”

District Judge Francis J. Mathew, who was appointed in 2013 by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, ruled that the participation of Couy Griffin in the riot at the U.S. Capital on Jan. 6 was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s prohibition against rebellion or treason, prohibiting him from serving on the Otero County Commission.

Griffin was found guilty of trespassing by a federal court in March. He wes later sentenced to 14 days in jail and fined $3,000.

In his ruling, Mathew noted the contradiction between Griffin’s defense, that the will of the voters of Otero County must prevail, and his refusal to accept the will of the voters in the 2020 presidential election.

When I first heard about Griffin’s removal from office, I felt that strange mixture of joy and darkness that comes upon hearing that something bad has happened to someone I dislike. Good riddance to … well, you know the rest. But once I got beyond those feelings of schadenfreude, I realized this isn’t just about Griffin.

I don’t think this was what Congress had in mind more than 150 years ago when the amendment was passed. And, I don’t think every person who was in any way involved in the events of Jan. 6 should be prohibited from ever running for office again, which would be the logical result of this ruling. Once you declare something to be rebellion or treason, how do you parse out how much of that is OK?

Griffin wasn’t running for re-election, and only had a few more weeks left in office anyway. But, this ruling could set a precedence that impacts more than just him.

I’m not sure how we classify the events of Jan. 6, beyond the obvious fact that it was a violent mob that is now being sent to prison, one by one. The sooner the better. Those higher up the chain should be held responsible, but not under laws that haven’t been enforced in more than a century.

Judges always get to have the last word in their rulings, and Mathew makes a valid debating point about the flawed logic of Griffin’s defense. But I don’t think that matters.

It comes down to a pretty fundamental question of who gets to pick our leaders, the voters or the courts. Judges need to be standing on rock-solid ground when they take it upon themselves to overturn the results of an election whose legitimacy has never been contested.

Stretching the 14th Amendment to lump Trump supporters in with the Confederate rebels of the Civil War seems like anything but rock-solid to me.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.