Trump back on Maine ballot for now, but GOP fails to impeach secretary of state

Pine Tree State in an uproar as Republicans try to impeach top election official, Trump lawyers demand more delay

Published January 10, 2024 5:30AM (EST)

Donald Trump | Map Of Maine (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Map Of Maine (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Although Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows has branded Donald Trump an insurrectionist and officially barred him from Maine’s presidential primary ballot, Trump’s name will in fact appear on the state’s ballot for the March 5 Republican primary. Court rulings over the next month or so, however, will determine whether votes for Trump in the Maine GOP contest will actually be counted.

Meanwhile, Bellows easily survived a vote to start impeachment proceedings against her on a party-line vote in the Democratic-controlled Maine House of Representatives. Only 60 of the chamber’s 150 current members, all Republicans, voted for the resolution on Tuesday, while 80 members — 77 Democrats, two Independents and one Republican — voted against it, with 10 members absent from the roll call vote.

Trump will appear on the March ballot because Bellows suspended the effects of her decision pending court reviews, and because Maine law requires that ballots be available for active military and overseas voters 45 days before an election, or by Jan. 20.

Trump’s legal team is now aiming to torpedo the Maine court review now underway, asking a Maine Superior Court judge to postpone ruling on their appeal of his disqualification “in the interest of judicial economy.”

The request filed Monday asks Kennebec County Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy to stay her proceedings in light of the U.S. Supreme Court scheduling oral arguments on Feb. 8 for Trump’s appeal of a separate but parallel case from Colorado, where the state Supreme Court ruled last month that he was disqualified from that state’s primary ballot.

The reasoning in both states is similar, although the specifics are different. Like the Colorado court, Bellows decided after a public hearing last month that Trump is ineligible for Maine’s ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, concluding that his incitement of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot amounted to an act of insurrection. 

The 14th Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, barred former Confederates from holding public office. It prohibits anyone who took an oath to the Constitution but “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against it from holding elective office again, even if the qualifications of age, citizenship and residency are met.

“The matter before the U.S. Supreme Court involves the exact same federal legal issues in the current matter,” Trump’s attorneys wrote in their new motion to the Maine court.

Like the Colorado Supreme Court, the Maine secretary of state decided that Trump is ineligible for the ballot, concluding that his incitement of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot amounted to an act of insurrection. 

Judge Murphy had announced she would rule on the Trump Maine appeal on Jan. 17, or 20 days after Bellows disqualified Trump, in accordance with the statutory deadline for adjudicating ballot petitionsMurphy ordered Trump’s lawyers, the voters who want him off the ballot, and Bellows to file briefs by Jan. 11, leaving either Jan. 12 or 16 for possible oral arguments. (Jan. 15 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday.)

Trump’s attorneys wrote in their new motion to Judge Murphy that “the current litigation is wholly unnecessary, unless President Trump is unsuccessful on all issues raised in the U.S. Supreme Court,” adding that a favorable decision from the Supreme Court would also render Bellows’ decision moot.  

The Trump motion argues the judge has discretion to extend the deadline by issuing a stay. But Bellows and the Maine voters who challenged Trump’s ballot petition disagree. Trump “makes no mention of any hardship or inequity he will suffer if this case is allowed to proceed,” attorneys for the voters wrote in their response. “Every extra day of delay in resolving a challenge risks additional confusion, because voters will be unsure of which candidates’ votes will be counted and which will not.”

The Maine attorney general, representing Bellows, urged the judge not to deviate from the “expedited, mandatory time frame” and argued that would be “unwise and potentially harmful,” particularly to Mainers voting early by absentee ballots that become available 30 days before an election.

A Maine Superior Court ruling could be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which would have only 14 days under state law, or until Jan. 31, to review the case and issue a ruling. That would become highly significant should the U.S. Supreme Court uphold the Colorado decision.

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On Jan. 2, attorneys representing Trump filed their promised appeal of the Bellows decision, calling it “arbitrary, capricious, and characterized by abuse of discretion.” Their complaint accused Bellows, a Democrat, of being a “biased decision-maker who should have recused herself and otherwise failed to provide due process” and asserts she “had no legal authority” under state law to dump Trump.

The Trump attorneys asked Judge Murphy to vacate the Bellows decision and declare that no secretary of state has jurisdiction to disqualify any presidential candidate under the 14th Amendment. They also wanted Bellows ordered to put Trump on the primary ballot.

As the Maine State Legislature reconvened for its 2024 session last week, Republicans harshly criticized Bellows and sought her removal from office.

In a House floor speech, Republican Rep. Shelley Rudnicki called on Bellows to resign for having effectively “disenfranchised” hundreds of thousands of voters.

Of Maine’s 929,017 active registered voters in November 2022, the latest figures available, 345,422 were Democrats, 280,150 were Republicans, 265,692 were independent and the rest were Green or Libertarian.

Rudnicki faulted Bellows for not disclosing prior to the Trump ballot hearing that she had been one of the three Maine electors supporting Joe Biden in December 2020, although that is public information and was widely reported at the time. (Trump won one electoral vote in Maine in 2020, because the state is one of only two that assigns electors by congressional district.)

Maine House Republican Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham called Bellows “unfit for office.”

Republicans faulted Bellows for not disclosing prior to the Trump ballot hearing that she had been one of the three Maine electors supporting Joe Biden — although that is public information.

“She has made a decision that threatens to throw our country into chaos. It’s a decision you would see in banana republics,” Faulkingham told reporters. “This is a terrifying, terrifying and disastrous decision that you could see copied by other secretaries of state in other states that would throw our nation into absolute pandemonium.”

Maine’s two U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, both disagreed with the Bellows decision, as did Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents a relatively liberal district in southern Maine, is the only member of the congressional delegation to support it.

Faulkingham said, “The fact that this decision was opposed by Susan Collins, Senator King and Congressman Golden, all three of which voted to impeach Donald Trump, speaks volumes, and the secretary of state has jumped in way over her boots on this one.”

Maine Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, an attorney and son of a Superior Court Justice, said the Bellows decision finding Trump had engaged in insurrection lacked due process.

Stewart told reporters, “I think the biggest thing, Donald Trump, whether you like the guy or don’t like the guy, hasn’t been convicted or even charged with insurrection.”

I later asked Stewart how he would describe the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, if it was not an insurrection.

“If that was in fact an insurrection that was in fact led by Donald Trump, why has no prosecutor charged him with that crime?” Stewart answered. 

Stewart said that Bellows, who is neither a lawyer nor a judge, was not qualified to issue her decision. “Her taking on this role, unilaterally, of judge, jury and executioner, literally, is not the system that we live under.”

As a Maine co-chair of the Ron DeSantis presidential campaign, Stewart added, “If you don’t like Trump, I think there’s a way to beat him, but it’s not by cheating him out of being on the ballot.”

“If you don’t like Trump, I think there’s a way to beat him," said the State Senate GOP leader. "But it’s not by cheating him out of being on the ballot.”

Faulkingham and Stewart are reiterating their call to change the way the Maine secretary of state is chosen, moving to a direct popular election. Maine is one of only four states whose chief election official is elected by the state legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 33 states, voters chose that official, usually but not always a secretary of state; in 13 other states and Washington, D.C., the governor or a state board of elections appoint the chief election official.

Tuesday’s Republican resolution to start impeachment proceedings against Bellows had virtually no chance of passing. Democrats have held majorities in the state House and Senate since 2019, when Democratic Gov. Janet Mills began her first term.

Mills, House Speaker Rachel Talbott Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson have not expressed public support for Bellows’ decision, only for her legal obligation to make it. They condemned the violent threats Bellows faced after her decision.

Mills’ press secretary, Ben Goodman, said, “While the secretary was required by law to rule on the petition, the governor believes that the question of whether former President Trump violated the 14th Amendment is a question that must be answered by the courts — and she believes it should be done so nationally rather than in a piecemeal fashion state by state. Without a judicial determination on that question, she believes that the decision of whether the former president should be considered for the presidency belongs in the hands of the people.”

Bellows previously served as a state senator alongside Senate President Jackson, who called the threats against her “vile” but did not embrace her decision.

“President Jackson knows Secretary Bellows did not make this difficult decision lightly. However, that does not mean he would have reached the same conclusion,” said Christine Kirby, the Senate president’s communications director. 

Republican representatives in favor of impeachment proceedings said on the House floor that Bellows had “overstepped her duties,” was “guilty of voter suppression” and had committed “election interference of the highest order.”

State Rep. Adam Lee, a Democrat, defended Bellows and the ballot petition review process prescribed by the legislature in 1985. “I’ve heard persistent cries that this case, this issue, belongs in front of a court,” he said. “Guess what? It is!”

Bellows told me, “I had a job to do, to follow the law and the Constitution. I did my job.”

By Phil Hirschkorn

Phil Hirschkorn has covered Maine politics since 2018.

MORE FROM Phil Hirschkorn

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14th Amendment Colorado Donald Trump Elections Insurrection Maine Reporting Supreme Court