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Law & Government

New Article on Insurrection, Rebellion, and Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment


Michael Stokes Paulsen and I have a new draft article: The Sweep and Force of Section Three, that is forthcoming in the Pennsylvania Law Review.

Here is the abstract:

Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids holding office by former office holders who then participate in insurrection or rebellion. Because of a range of misperceptions and mistaken assumptions, Section Three's full legal consequences have not been appreciated or enforced. This article corrects those mistakes by setting forth the full sweep and force of Section Three.

First, Section Three remains an enforceable part of the Constitution, not limited to the Civil War, and not effectively repealed by nineteenth century amnesty legislation. Second, Section Three is self-executing, operating as an immediate disqualification from office, without the need for additional action by Congress. It can and should be enforced by every official, state or federal, who judges qualifications. Third, to the extent of any conflict with prior constitutional rules, Section Three repeals, supersedes, or simply satisfies them. This includes the rules against bills of attainder or ex post facto laws, the Due Process Clause, and even the free speech principles of the First Amendment. Fourth, Section Three covers a broad range of conduct against the authority of the constitutional order, including many instances of indirect participation or support as "aid or comfort." It covers a broad range of former offices, including the Presidency. And in particular, it disqualifies former President Donald Trump, and potentially many others, because of their participation in the attempted overthrow of the 2020 presidential election.

And from the Introduction:

"Section 3 has long since faded into history."

- Eric Foner[1]

          Reports of Section Three's demise are greatly exaggerated. It turns out that Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment remains of direct and dramatic relevance today—a vital, fully operative rule of constitutional law with potentially far-reaching contemporary real-world consequences. Section Three remains in legal force, and has a broad substantive sweep.

Here is what it says:

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. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.[2]

This section of the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to address a particular historical situation and acute problem arising in the aftermath of the Civil War. States in the South had purported (unconstitutionally)[3] to secede from the Union; they had purported to form the (so-called) "Confederate States of America" in rebellion against the authority of the U.S. Constitution; and they had waged a bloody four-year war of rebellion against the United States. Yet even after the rebellion had been defeated, Southern States had audaciously sent to Congress, to serve as U.S. Senators and Representatives, men who had notoriously violated previously sworn oaths to support the U.S. Constitution by subsequently engaging in or supporting secession, rebellion, and civil war against the authority of the United States (to say nothing of those now serving again in their state governments). These men who arrived in Washington included several who had held prominent positions in the rebel Confederacy: "four Confederate generals, four colonels, several Confederate congressmen and members of Confederate state legislatures, and even the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens."[4]

The Congress that proposed the Fourteenth Amendment rightly regarded the situation as outrageous—not only morally, but practically. If former Confederates held the levers of federal and state government power, effective "reconstruction" of the political order and any hope of extending the full and equal protection of the laws to the newly freed former slaves would be at an end. Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment responded to that outrage, enacting a sweeping disqualification from state and federal office of those who had, as legislators or officers in the federal or state government prior to the War, sworn required oaths of loyalty to the United States Constitution and subsequently engaged in "insurrection or rebellion" against the U.S. constitutional authority or given "aid or comfort" to persons engaged in such acts of insurrection or rebellion. Only a two-thirds majority vote of both houses of Congress could remove that sweeping disqualification.

Fast-forward a century and a half. The events surrounding efforts to overturn the result of the presidential election of 2020 have sparked renewed scholarly, judicial, and political interest in Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment.[5] The core events are familiar to all—the dishonest attempts to set aside valid state election results with false claims of voter fraud; the attempted subversion of the constitutional processes for States' selection of electors for President and Vice President; the efforts to have the Vice President unconstitutionally claim a power to refuse to count electoral votes certified and submitted by several States; the efforts of Members of Congress to assert a similar power to reject votes lawfully cast votes by electors; the fomenting and immediate incitement of a mob to attempt to forcibly prevent Congress's and the Vice President's counting of such lawfully cast votes—all in an attempt to prevent the defeated incumbent President, Donald Trump, from losing power in accordance with the Constitution.

This was undoubtedly a serious assault on the American constitutional order. Not since the Civil War has there been so serious a threat to the foundations of the American constitutional republic. It takes little imagination to describe the efforts to maintain Trump in office, notwithstanding his defeat, as an attempted political coup d'etat. These actions culminated in the incitement and execution of a violent uprising at the Capitol on January 6, 2021—an "insurrection" aimed at preventing Congress and the incumbent Vice President from performing their constitutional responsibilities to count the votes for President and Vice President in the 2020 election. Several of the people involved in these events—most notably the defeated President, Donald Trump—had previously taken oaths to support the Constitution. If they engaged in or gave aid and comfort to an insurrection against the constitutional government, Section Three would appear to bar them from holding office again.

As legal officials and citizens generally have begun to confront the application of Section Three, they have foundered on the most fundamental questions. How does Section Three's disqualification apply—does it apply—to those who planned, supported, encouraged, assisted, incited, or otherwise participated in the events surrounding the attempted overturning of the presidential election of 2020? Does Section Three's century-and-a-half old disqualification, designed for the aftermath of the Civil War, even remain legally operative in the first place? If so, what must be done to enforce Section Three? Does it require implementing legislation or criminal trials (or impeachments) before its disqualification kicks in? How does Section Three interact with the rest of the constitutional order—are its subjects protected by constitutional principles of attainder, anti-retroactivity, due process and free speech? And if Section Three does apply—to what and to whom? What actions count as having "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the Constitution of the United States or having "given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof"? Which officials are covered by Section Three's exclusions?

This article attempts to answer these questions. It makes four key points (or clusters of points):

First. Section Three remains legally operative. It is no less part of the Constitution than the other provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is not a dead letter. The Constitution is a binding, authoritative written text, not a collection of specific historical purposes and intentions. Where the text applies, it applies. Its legal force is not limited to the immediate problem or purpose that prompted its enactment. Section Three is not limited to the circumstances of the Civil War and Reconstruction, even if the meaning of its terms may be illuminated by that experience and history.

Nor has Section Three somehow been "repealed" by Congress's two major nineteenth-century statutes granting amnesty to those covered by Section Three. This is not because it would be impossible for a constitutional provision to expire by its terms after a period of time, or upon the occurrence of a particular event, or upon action taken by future actors. Article I, Section 9, for example, created a constitutional prohibition of most congressional regulation of the international slave trade for a period of twenty years—but its prohibition then vanished in 1808. Section Three, however, does not work that way. It imposes a general, prospective, rule of disqualification, which Congress may remove by two-thirds vote of both houses only once it has occurred. Section Three is prospective; Congressional amnesty is retrospective.

Second. Section Three is legally self-executing. That is, Section Three's disqualification is constitutionally automatic whenever its terms are satisfied. Section Three requires no legislation or adjudication to be legally effective. It is enacted by the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment. Its disqualification, where triggered, just is. It follows that Section Three's disqualification may and should be followed and carried out by all whose duties are affected by it. In many cases, Section Three will give rise to judiciable controversies in the courts. In others it will be enforceable by state and federal officials. But no prior judicial decision, and no implementing legislation, is required for Section Three to be carried out by officials sworn to uphold the Constitution whose duties present the occasion for applying Section Three's commands. Section Three is ready for use.

While Section Three's requirements could be made the subject of enforcement legislation by Congress, under its general power under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment "to enforce" the provisions of the amendment, no such legislation is constitutionally required as a prerequisite to Section Three doing what Section Three itself does. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase's circuit court opinion to the contrary, In re Griffin,[6] is simply wrong on this point—full of sleight of hand, motivated reasoning, and self-defeating maneuvers—as we will explain at length. In re Griffin should be hooted down the pages of history, purged from our constitutional understanding of Section Three.

Third. Section Three supersedes (or satisfies) earlier-enacted constitutional provisions to the extent of any supposed conflict between them. Section Three, at the time it was adopted as part of the Constitution, imposed a disqualification from office based on an individual's past conduct. Even if imposition of such a disability might otherwise, if done by statute, have been a forbidden Ex Post Facto law or Bill of Attainder, Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment constitutionally supersedes any prior provision conflicting with its terms.

This principle extends to a more unsettling point. To the extent Section Three's disqualification for having "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" or giving "aid or comfort" to "the enemies" might turn out to be in tension with the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech, Section Three supersedes the First Amendment to the extent of any true conflict. To be sure, the proper construction of Section Three's terms ("insurrection," "rebellion," "aid and comfort," "enemies") will leave much speech and advocacy completely free. But in the cases where it does not, the terms of Section Three, not the constructions of the First Amendment, decide where the line is.

This leads to the article's fourth and final group of points:

Fourth. Section Three's disqualification is sweeping in its terms. It disqualifies from future office-holding persons who "engaged in"—an expansive and encompassing term connoting many forms of participation in or active support of—a broad swath of activity covered by the terms "insurrection or rebellion" or the giving of "aid or comfort" to "enemies" of the nation or its constitutional order. It applies to a broad swath of civilian, military, and legislative office holders who swore oaths of fidelity to the Constitution, and it disqualifies such persons from holding in the future any of an extraordinarily broad swath of public offices. Taking Section Three seriously, on its own terms, means taking seriously the enormous sweep of the disqualification it creates. And, we will argue, taking Section Three seriously means that its constitutional disqualifications from future state and federal officeholding extend to participants in the attempted overturning of the presidential election of 2020, including former President Donald Trump and others. The substantive terms of Section Three's prohibition are not themselves difficult or inscrutable (even if there might be questions of application at the outer edges of the text's meaning). But they are potentially breathtaking in their straightforward consequences.

In what follows, we develop each of these four core points at length.

Section Three remains a valid, prospective, enforceable, self-executing, broad, and relevant part of our Constitution. It falls to us to fulfill our duties to it. These include the duties of legislative bodies, state and federal election officials, executive officers, and perhaps others to take up the Constitution, including Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment, and wield it faithfully and forcefully against its enemies. Taking Section Three seriously means excluding from present or future office those who sought to subvert lawful government authority under the Constitution in the aftermath of the 2020 election by engaging in or giving aid or comfort to acts of "insurrection or rebellion" against the lawful constitutional order.

[1] Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution 85 (2019).

[2] U.S. Const. art. XIV, sec. 3.

[3] See infra note 228 and sources cited there.

[4] Akhil Reed Amar, America's Constitution: A Biography 377 (2005); see also Eric L. McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction 176-179 (1960); Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History 25 (2018).

[5] The most important scholarly articles (to which we are deeply indebted) are Gerard N. Magliocca, Amnesty and Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment, 36 Const. Comment.. 87 (2021); Myles S. Lynch, Disloyalty and Disqualification: Reconstructing Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment, 30 William & Mary Bill of Rights J. 153 (2021), both of which were written before the events of January 6, and Daniel J. Hemel, Disqualifying Insurrectionists and Rebels: A How-to Guide, Lawfare (Jan. 19, 2021), available at

[6] 11 F. Cas. 7, 22-27 (C.C.D. Va. 1869) (No. 5,815).

You can read much more about each of these points by downloading the whole (very long!) article.