A judge in New Mexico ruled Tuesday that Couy Griffin, an Otero county commissioner and founder of the group Cowboys for Trump, is disqualified from holding public office because of his participation in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The historic ruling marks the first time an elected official has been ordered removed from office because of their participation in, or support of, the Capitol riot. It is also the first time a judge at any level has found that the events leading up to and on Jan. 6 — when a violent mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, temporarily preventing Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election — amounted to an “insurrection.”
Some legal experts predicted that Tuesday’s ruling could have serious implications for other current or former officials — including Trump himself — who were involved in Jan. 6 and may be hoping to return to government.
“If this stands up on appeal, then it’s a significant precedent for the next election cycle,” said Gerard Magliocca, a constitutional scholar and professor of law at Indiana University. Magliocca told Yahoo News that “the most obvious way in which that works is, if Mr. Griffin is disqualified for what he did on Jan. 6, why isn’t Donald Trump disqualified for what he did on Jan. 6, which was greater?”
In his 49-page decision, state District Court Judge Francis Mathew concluded that Griffin, who was convicted earlier this year of trespassing on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, must be immediately removed from office and barred from holding any future elected position at the state or federal level.
“He took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States ... [and then] engaged in that insurrection after taking his oath,” Mathew wrote. “The Court concludes that the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol and the surrounding planning, mobilization, and incitement constituted an ‘insurrection’ within the meaning of Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Mathew cited a rarely invoked constitutional provision that was designed to prevent members of the Confederacy from holding public office after the Civil War. It states that anyone who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof” after “having previously taken an oath” to “support the Constitution” shall be barred from holding “any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state.” The provision does not require an official to be criminally convicted of participating in an insurrection in order for them to be disqualified from holding office.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the last time Congress invoked Section 3 of the 14th Amendment was in 1919, when it was used “to refuse to seat a socialist Congressman accused of having given aid and comfort to Germany during the First World War.”
More recently, progressive groups unsuccessfully sought to use the provision in other lawsuits filed in Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina and Wisconsin that aimed to block Republican lawmakers accused of supporting the Jan. 6 rioters from continuing to hold office.
In May a federal appeals court ruled in a lawsuit against Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., who spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Capitol attack, that insurrectionists could be barred from holding office. However, the ruling came after Cawthorn had already lost his primary, rendering the matter effectively moot.
In a separate case challenging the candidacy of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a state judge in Georgia said the Jan. 6 riot constituted an insurrection but that the challengers had “produced insufficient evidence to show that Rep. Greene ‘engaged’ in that insurrection.” Meanwhile in Arizona, a state court dismissed lawsuits seeking to keep Trump-allied Republican Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar off the ballot.
Unlike those lawmakers, who attempted to overturn the 2020 election results from inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, Griffin’s presence among the riotous mob outside made him a somewhat easier target for advocates seeking to hold officials accountable for their roles in the attack.
Donald K. Sherman, senior vice president and chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), suggested that Tuesday’s ruling out of New Mexico “provides a road map” for future challenges to officials who may have encouraged or supported the rioters without physically storming the Capitol themselves.
Sherman and other CREW attorneys discussed the judge’s ruling — and its potential implications for other officials — on Twitter Spaces Tuesday afternoon. CREW represented three New Mexico residents who brought a civil lawsuit against Griffin in March, which called for him to be removed from office for his participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
In particular, Sherman highlighted Mathew’s conclusion that Griffin “aided the insurrection even though he did not personally engage in violence.”
The judge’s ruling, Sherman said, “makes clear” that “the disqualification clause of the Constitution does apply to the events of Jan. 6. ... And the mobilization and support of Jan. 6, whether individuals were violent or not on that day, was an insurrection within the context of the Constitution.
“There are certainly others in government and out of government who would qualify as insurrectionists under the legal precedent,” he said.
Griffin, an avid conspiracy theorist and founder of Cowboys for Trump, a group of horseback-riding supporters of the former president, had served as one of three elected commissioners for New Mexico’s Otero County since 2019. In the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, he promoted the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, including as a speaker in a multicity bus tour organized by Women for America First, one of the groups that coordinated Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.
In March, Griffin became the second defendant in the Justice Department’s wide-ranging Jan. 6 probe to go to trial for his participation in the riot. He was acquitted of disorderly conduct but was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of trespassing on Capitol grounds. In June, a federal judge in D.C. sentenced him to 14 days in jail with time served and one year of supervised release for the trespassing conviction, which he has said he plans to appeal.
Griffin, who said he was considering a run for sheriff at the end of his commission term later this year, has continued to promote unsubstantiated election fraud claims in his role as county commissioner and had refused to certify the results of his county’s primary election in June.
“This is why you don’t want insurrectionists holding office, because they will continue to use their position to undermine democracy,” Sherman said Tuesday.
Griffin represented himself in a brief bench trial last month after the Otero County Commission declined a request to fund his personal legal representation in the lawsuit. During the trial, in which attorneys for CREW, along with a team of New Mexico-based lawyers, called several witnesses to testify about his actions on Jan. 6, Griffin criticized Mathew for refusing to dismiss the case and insisted that he was at the Capitol as a peaceful protester.
However, Mathew found that Griffin still acted in support of the insurrection, even without engaging in violence. In his ruling, the judge wrote that Griffin not only helped “mobilize and incite thousands across the country to join the mob” in Washington but that “by joining the mob and trespassing on restricted Capitol grounds, Mr. Griffin contributed to delaying Congress’s election-certification proceedings.”
Sherman said this particular aspect of Mathew’s ruling could have “important implications for any current or former or aspiring ... [officeholder] who did participate in the insurrection.”
Griffin did not respond to a request for comment, but he reportedly told CNN after the ruling Tuesday that he’d been ordered to clean out his desk at the county commissioners’ office. He told Reuters that he plans to appeal Mathew’s ruling.