State leaders rebuff efforts to exclude Trump from California primary ballot

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Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis had urged Secretary of State Shirley Weber to follow Colorado’s example, but Newsom has doubts.

Bob Egelko | Contributor

The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to remove Donald Trump from the state’s presidential ballot because of his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol apparently won’t be joined in California — at least not now — despite a plea from a high-ranking state official. The Colorado court issued a first-in-the-nation ruling last Tuesday declaring Trump ineligible to seek or hold office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which disqualifies a candidate who has sworn to uphold the Constitution and then takes part in or aids an “insurrection or rebellion” against the government.

A day after the ruling, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis urged Secretary of State Shirley Weber, California’s top elections official, to do whatever she could to follow Colorado’s lead. “The Colorado decision can be the basis for a similar decision here in our state,” Kounalakis, who plans to run for governor in 2026, wrote in a letter to Weber, a fellow Democrat. “I urge you to explore every legal option to remove former President Donald Trump from California’s 2024 presidential primary ballot.

This decision is about honoring the rule of law in our country and protecting the fundamental pillars of our democracy.” Weber was apparently unpersuaded. “There are complex legal issues surrounding this matter,” she responded to Kounalakis in a letter on Friday. “The former President’s conduct tainted and continues to sow the public’s mistrust in government and the legitimacy of elections, so it is more important than ever to safeguard elections in a way that transcends political divisions.” Weber noted that the Colorado court had put its ruling on hold until Jan. 4 and will keep it on hold if Trump appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, as he says he will do. Quick Supreme Court action could allow Colorado to bar Trump from its Republican primary election ballot on March 5, the same day as California’s primary.

But if the justices grant review, the issue will remain unresolved until a ruling by the high court, which has a 6-3 majority of Republican appointees. California law provides for “the resolution of ballot challenges … by our courts,” Weber wrote. “My office will continue to assess all our options, including those that may arise as a result of any action taken by the United States Supreme Court or other changing circumstances.” In other words, there’ll be no action from California until the Supreme Court acts. And maybe not even then, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom. “There is no doubt that Donald Trump is a threat to our liberties and even to our democracy,” Newsom said in a statement Friday. “But in California, we defeat candidates at the polls. Everything else is a political distraction.” That would seem to include the constitutional prohibition on insurrectionists and their supporters holding federal or state office.

The 14th Amendment provision was drafted to exclude some former Confederates from government office after the Civil War. It was invoked last year by a New Mexico judge to remove a county commissioner who had been convicted of a federal crime for taking part in the Jan. 6 riot, but no other court has used it to disqualify a presidential candidate. Courts in several states have rejected suits to remove Trump. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Nov. 2 that political parties, not judges, must determine eligibility for partisan primary elections.

A federal judge in Santa Ana dismissed a suit by a Republican voter in October, ruling that the voter could not show he would be harmed if Trump were on the ballot. Newsom’s statement also raised doubts about the prospects for legislative intervention. State Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, told the Chronicle last week that he would introduce a bill to require Weber’s office to determine whether a presidential candidate was eligible for the ballot.

That might amount to a “political distraction,” based on the governor’s words. Another group of lawmakers, led by Assembly Member Evan Low, D-San Jose, asked Attorney General Rob Bonta in September to go to court and seek Trump’s removal from the state ballot. Bonta, also a potential candidate for governor in 2026, responded last week by describing the Colorado ruling as a “powerful indication of the importance and seriousness of these claims,” but did not commit to taking any legal action in California.

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