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Trump lawyers don't want Maine's secretary of state to decide on ballot eligibility

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows attends the inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills, Jan. 4, 2023, at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows attends the inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills, Jan. 4, 2023, at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.

Attorneys for Donald Trump are asking Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows to disqualify herself from deciding whether the former president should appear on the presidential primary ballot. The attorneys argue that the Democrat is biased against the president and already decided that he engaged in an insurrection in social media posts.

The late filing by Trump's legal team came as Bellows is preparing a decision that could make Maine the second state to attempt to remove the Republican from the ballot because of his role inciting the riots at the U.S. Capitol in 2021.

Her decision could turn on an interpretation of a section of the 14th Amendment drafted after the Civil War that bars Confederate enlistees or sympathizers from seeking office.

Trump's attorneys assert that Bellows has already prejudged Trump as an instigator in the storming of the Capitol and characterized the event as an insurrection, something they dispute.

Bellows, who is playing a quasi-judicial role in the ballot access case, has not responded to the attorneys' claims.

However she rules, her decision can be appealed. It will also be affected by an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Colorado law court's ruling last week that Trump should be disqualified from that state's primary ballot.

In a recently filed legal briefing, attorneys for the petitioners in the Maine case argued that Bellows is bound by the Colorado court’s ruling to disqualify Trump, citing a legal doctrine designed to prevent the relitigating of a case when another court has already done so.

Trump’s attorneys counter that Bellows has no jurisdiction in the matter and that Maine law prevents her from removing the former president from the ballot. Their letter asking Bellows to remove herself from deciding the case centers on several social media posts around the time of the riots and the subsequent impeachment trial in Congress that, if successful, would have barred Trump from seeking office again.

In one post Bellows described the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol as an insurrection and “an unlawful attempt to overthrow the results of a free and fair election.” She simultaneously applauded votes by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, to convict Trump for provoking the rioters with false claims of a stolen election.

“Today 57 Senators including King & Collins found Trump guilty. That’s short of impeachment but nevertheless an indictment. The insurrectionists failed, and democracy prevailed,” she wrote on the social media site X, adding, “Not saying not disappointed. He should have been impeached. But history will not treat him or those who voted against impeachment kindly.”

The Jan. 6 riots were commonly described as an insurrection, although now that term is central to the legal interpretation of a section of the 14th Amendment. It reads, “No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”

Trump supporters dispute that the former president engaged in insurrection as defined in the Constitution. The Colorado law court ruled that he did.

Petitioners in more than a dozen states have launched similar challenges to Trump’s ballot access, although most of those are winding through the courts. The Maine case could end up in the courts as well, but state law outlines a process for the secretary of state to weigh challenges to candidates appearing on the primary ballot. Trump’s lawyers assert that the law limits the secretary of state’s role in the matter.

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