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SCOTUS rules unanimously in favor of Trump but differ on scope of decision

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The Supreme Court restored Donald Trump to the ballot in several states. The states, which were led by Colorado, had sought to disqualify him on the grounds that he had participated in an insurrection at the Capitol in 2020. With time running out just one day before Super Tuesday, the court issued its opinion without even taking the bench. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: By a unanimous vote, the court rejected the state's claim that under a post-Civil War constitutional provision, states could disqualify Trump and other candidates for federal office if, in the words of the 14th Amendment, they have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States. The court said that states could disqualify candidates for state office, but not for federal office. On that, all nine justices agreed. But 4 of the 9, including Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett, said that the five-justice majority had gone way too far in deciding more than necessary.

Trump was delighted with the outcome. In a rambling press conference, he thanked the Supreme Court majority for its, quote, "brilliance," accused special counsel Jack Smith of being a, quote, "deranged Trump hater" and, without any evidence, accused President Biden of coordinating all the legal cases against him in four different federal and state courts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: President Biden, fight your fight yourself. Don't use prosecutors and judges to go after your opponent.

TOTENBERG: Today's unsigned opinion, almost certainly written by Chief Justice Roberts, said that if the states were allowed to disqualify presidential candidates, the result could well be that a single candidate would be declared ineligible in some states but not in others, leading to a patchwork of eligibility across the country. Nothing in the Constitution requires that we endure such chaos, the court said. All nine justices agreed with that bottom line, but the five-justice majority went on to say that only Congress can enforce the insurrection disqualification provision of the 14th Amendment, and it imposed severe limits on what kind of a law Congress could pass that would meet constitutional muster.

MICHAEL LUTTIG: They tightened it down so that Congress will never even be able to pass implementing legislation.

TOTENBERG: That's former federal judge Michael Luttig, a conservative who's supported the idea of Trump's ineligibility.

LUTTIG: The decision today was breathtaking. And it's a decision that, in any previous time, would be characterized as quite activist.

TOTENBERG: But Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who'd been skeptical of the suit, said that the court got at least the bottom line right.

JOCELYN BENSON: What we as state officials need is finality and certainty. And so what I was looking for and what I got out of this is that we can move forward with the operations of running clean, fair elections in our states.

TOTENBERG: The split on the court today was between the justices in the majority who sought to prevent most future challenges to alleged insurrectionists on the ballot and the four justices who wanted to leave that question open. Writing for the court's three liberals, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that under the guise of providing a more complete explanation, the majority, quote, "attempts to insulate all alleged insurrectionists from future challenges to their holding federal office." Justice Barrett also did not sign on to much of the majority opinion, but she didn't join the liberals' concurrence. She stressed that, quote, "for the present purposes, our differences are far less important than our unanimity."

As for Trump, he ended his press conference today with a plug for granting presidents lifetime immunity. That's the next Trump case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in April. Presidents have to be given total immunity, he said. If they're not, it's not what the founders wanted.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. 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.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.