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Secretary of State Bellows appeals judge's ruling in Trump ballot access case

Maine Democratic Secretary of State Shenna Bellows speaks with an aide in her office after the House voted down an attempt to impeach her on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Augusta, Maine.
David Sharp
Maine Democratic Secretary of State Shenna Bellows speaks with an aide in her office after the House voted down an attempt to impeach her on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Augusta, Maine.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows is appealing a recent court ruling that delays action on her decision to bar former President Trump from participating in Maine’s upcoming Republican presidential primary.

In a brief statement issued Friday morning, Bellows said she welcomes the anticipated U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Colorado case that also focuses on whether Trump should be disqualified from the ballot under the constitution’s insurrection clause. But Bellows, a Democrat, said her office has opted to also appeal this week’s decision by a Maine Superior Court justice that essentially put Maine’s case on hold until the Colorado case is resolved.

“In the interim, Maine law provides the opportunity to seek review from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court – which I requested today,” Bellows said. “I know both the constitutional and state authority questions are of grave concern to many. This appeal ensures that Maine’s highest court has the opportunity to weigh in now, before ballots are counted, promoting trust in our free, safe and secure elections.”

On Dec. 28, Bellows said that Trump’s name should not appear on Maine’s primary ballot because his involvement in the events leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Bellows suspended enforcement of her decision while the anticipated appeals played out in state court. The Trump campaign promptly appealed her ruling to Maine’s Superior Court.

On Wednesday, Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy sent the case back to Bellows but ordered her to wait for a U.S. 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.

“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 in her Jan. 17 ruling. “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.”

Four Maine voters – including two former Republican state senators – had challenged Trump’s eligibility to participate in the upcoming primary, citing the Civil War-era language in the 14th Amendment. Bellows has said that she was merely following the process laid out in state law for considering such challenges.

Bellows’ office did not provide additional information about the appeal filed to Maine’s Law Court and said she would not be commenting further on the decision.

Legal briefs are expected to be filed with the Law Court next week. Under the process laid out in Maine's ballot challenge law, the Supreme Judicial Court “shall immediately consider the case” and must issue a decision within 14 days of the Superior Court decision, which appears to be Jan. 31 in this case.

Ethan Strimling, who was among the four people who challenged Trump's eligibility under the insurrection clause, said Friday that he supports the appeal. A Democrat, Strimling is a former Portland mayor and state lawmaker who joined former Republican state Sens. Kim Rosen of Bucksport and Tom Saviello of Wilton in filing a formal challenge to Trump's ballot status.

Strimling said timing is a major consideration because, under Murphy's ruling, parties could appeal Bellows' subsequent decision after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Colorado case. And that would potentially kick-start another lengthy appeal process to the Superior Court and then the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. That process could take up to five weeks — extending well beyond Maine's March 5th primary — under the timelines laid out in the law.

"The Superior Court didn't give any guidance, it just punted it back," Strimling said. "So I think it makes sense that we go back to the courts and say, 'We really need guidance here.'"