Federal judge blocks NC elections board from determining Cawthorn's eligibility to run
On Friday, a federal judge effectively blocked a challenge to North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn’s candidacy. The North Carolina State Board of Elections is now enjoined from deciding whether Cawthorn’s alleged role in the January 6 insurrection makes him ineligible to run.
Judge Richard Myers II, a Trump appointee, ruled that the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) does not have the authority to determine whether Cawthorn is eligible to run for reelection.
Myers issued the ruling from the bench after oral arguments this morning in the Eastern District of North Carolina court in Wilmington. The arguments did not address whether or not Cawthorn — who has insisted on his innocence — was involved in the January 6 insurrection. Instead, the revolved around whether a state elections board had the constitutional authority to consider the qualifications of a congressional candidate — and whether the 14th Amendment provision cited by those challenging Cawthorn's candidacy would legally apply.
Cawthorn’s attorney, James Bopp, argued that an 1872 amnesty act means that challenge, based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, is void. The act, Bopp argued repeatedly, granted amnesty "retrospectively and prospectively," meaning it removed the "political disability" — or disqualification from holding Congressional office — not just for past offenders but for offenders in the future. (Some will remember Bopp as the attorney who handled the early litigation on behalf of Citizens United, before it went to the Supreme Court in 2009).
Attorneys for the state argued this defense would create a quote ‘absurd’ precedent, effectively protecting future insurrectionists.
Judge Myers found in Cawthorn’s favor, saying it was up to Congress, not the court, to address that issue. Myers stated that Congress alone had the authority to change its laws and noted that it could vote to amend, revise, or repeal the 1872 act.
Outside the courthouse, Bopp claimed the case was part of a nationwide strategy by Democrats to "pick off" Republican candidates, calling it an "assault on fair and democratic elections." Bopp again claimed Cawthorn was innocent, decrying the insurrection as "horrible" but saying his client had no role in it.
Judge Myer's ruling was very narrow, applying only to challenges to congressional candidates, only in North Carolina, and only based on the 3rd Section of the 14th Amendment — what he called a "category of one," meaning Cawthorn.
Asked if he believes Myer's ruling hold open a space for challenges to a potential Trump presidential run in 2024, Bopp said no — but acknowledged he expects to see those challenges.
According to a spokesperson for the North Carolina Attorney General's office, which typically represents state agencies in litigation, attorneys are reviewing the decision with NCSBE but have not made a decision on whether or not to appeal.
An interesting final note: Myers is a former StarNews reporter, who mostly worked the crime beat from 1991 to 1995, including coverage of the murder of James Jordan, father of basketball legend Michael Jordan. Myers returned to Wilmington as a newly minted federal judge in 2019 — shortly after federal court operations moved from the Alton Lennon courthouse in downtown Wilmington to the former StarNews headquarters on South 17th street.