Maine’s secretary of state is poised to issue a decision next week that could bolster a citizen-led movement to keep former President Donald J. Trump off primary ballots around the country — or contradict a landmark court decision in Colorado this week.
In a hearing last week at Maine’s State House in Augusta, Shenna Bellows, the secretary of state, weighed three separate complaints challenging Mr. Trump’s eligibility to appear on the state’s Republican primary ballot. Two are based on the same section of the Constitution that the Colorado Supreme Court cited in its 4-to-3 decision on Tuesday that found Mr. Trump cannot hold office again because his actions leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol amounted to engaging in an insurrection.
Some form of challenge to Mr. Trump’s eligibility has been lodged in more than 30 states, but many of those have already been dismissed. Most are unfolding in the courts, but in Maine — because of a quirk in its Constitution — the secretary of state weighs in first, with voters filing petitions, not lawsuits. Her decision can then be appealed to the state’s Superior Court.
The Colorado ruling was the first in history to disqualify a presidential candidate from a ballot under the 14th Amendment, which was drafted after the Civil War. One section of the amendment bars those who have taken an oath “to support” the Constitution from holding office if they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same,” or had “given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign has said it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court; should the high court take the case, the other challenges around the country are likely to be put on hold.
After the Colorado ruling, Ms. Bellows, an elected Democrat, invited lawyers on both sides in Maine to file supplemental briefs and said that her decision was likely to come next week.
The Republican primaries in Maine and Colorado are both scheduled for March 5, known as Super Tuesday because so many states hold primaries that day. But states have to start sending ballots to service members and overseas voters 45 days before a federal election — Jan. 20, in the case of the March 5 primaries — adding urgency to the situation.
If the Supreme Court agrees to hear Mr. Trump’s appeal, the Colorado court’s decision would not take effect on Jan. 4 as scheduled, and Mr. Trump would remain eligible to appear on the ballot there pending the outcome of the appeal, according to Colorado state officials.
An appeal would also probably pause other efforts to keep him off ballots around the country. But it was unclear this week what it would mean in Maine, where the process is thus far proceeding outside the courts.
Under Maine law, registered voters can challenge a candidate’s ballot access by filing a petition with the secretary of state. The state received three such challenges to Mr. Trump’s ballot eligibility: one from a group of former elected officials, and two from individual residents.
Mark Brewer, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Maine, said little attention had been paid to the complaints in Maine until the ruling in Colorado.
“Now everyone is looking to see where else this might happen,” he said.
The challenge in Michigan is also among those being closely watched. Lawyers on both sides have asked the state’s Supreme Court to rule by next week, but the court could schedule oral arguments first, or wait to see if the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Colorado case.
Similar lawsuits filed by a long-shot Republican presidential candidate, John Anthony Castro, have been dismissed by federal judges in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Florida, and withdrawn in a dozen other states.
Sworn in almost three years ago as Maine’s first woman secretary of state, Ms. Bellows grew up in tiny Hancock, Maine, and served two terms as a state senator. She is the former executive director of the nonprofit Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine and of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
Dr. Brewer said he could not predict her decision, but noted that in her shoes, he would find it hard to rule as Colorado’s court did.
“Whatever you may think he’s done, the former president has not been charged with insurrection,” Dr. Brewer said in an interview. “Even if he had been charged, he hasn’t had his day in court yet, so in the eyes of the law, he’s not guilty of anything.”
But Ethan Strimling, a former mayor of Portland and Democratic state legislator who initiated one of the challenges with two former Republican state legislators, said the Colorado court decision changes that equation.
“There is no longer any truth to that argument, because two courts have now found that he incited insurrection,” Mr. Strimling said, referring to the Colorado Supreme Court ruling and one from a lower court that preceded it. “I think that creates great clarity.”
Lawyers for Mr. Trump argued in their follow-up brief that the Colorado decision should be irrelevant to the Maine proceeding because the two challenges are separate actions under different laws and standards, and because the former president did not have “full and fair opportunity” to litigate the facts in Colorado.
Furthermore, they reiterated, the secretary of state does not have legal standing to exclude Mr. Trump from the Maine ballot.
“The Constitution reserves exclusively to the Electoral College and Congress the power to determine whether a person may serve as president,” they argued in a closing brief last week. “The challengers effectively ask the secretary to strip those institutions’ power to resolve Section Three issues.”
While two of the three challenges in Maine focus on the 14th Amendment, the third, brought by Paul Gordon, a lawyer in Portland, argues that Mr. Trump should be found ineligible for the ballot under the 22nd Amendment, which says that “no person should be elected to the office of president more than twice.” The basis for his argument is that Mr. Trump has repeatedly claimed to have won the 2020 election.
Mr. Trump could “remove this obstacle” to qualify for the ballot, Mr. Gordon said in his complaint, by “acknowledging that he lost the 2020 election and repudiating all previous statements undermining the integrity of that election.”
Nick Corasaniti, Ernesto Londoño and Mitch Smith contributed reporting.