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US Supreme Court rejects New Mexico official's appeal of insurrection ouster

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: The United States Supreme Court in Washington

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an ousted New Mexico county commissioner's challenge to judicial rulings that made him the first person to be disqualified from office under a constitutional provision regarding insurrection for taking part in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.

Former Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin, a Republican, had appealed a ruling by New Mexico's top court upholding a judge's decision to ban him from public office after finding he participated in an insurrection. Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment disqualifies from office any "executive or judicial officer of any state" who took an oath to "support" the Constitution and then "engaged in insurrection."

The Supreme Court on March 4 issued a ruling involving former President Donald Trump and the 14th Amendment. It reversed a decision by Colorado's top court excluding Trump from the state's ballot under Section 3, finding that states are barred from disqualifying candidates for federal office under the provision. The Colorado Supreme Court had concluded that Trump's actions concerning the attack on the Capitol by his supporters amounted to insurrection.

Trump is the Republican candidate challenging Democratic President Joe Biden in the Nov. 5 U.S. election.

Trump supporters attacked police, broke through barricades and swarmed the Capitol in a bid to prevent Congress from certifying Biden's 2020 election victory over Trump. Trump gave an incendiary speech to supporters beforehand, telling them to go to the Capitol and "fight like hell." He then for hours rebuffed requests that he urge the mob to stop.

Griffin, founder of a political advocacy group called "Cowboys for Trump," was convicted in March 2022 of a misdemeanor count of entering and remaining on restricted grounds on Jan. 6 and sentenced to 14 days in jail. He was acquitted of a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct.

Three New Mexico residents - backed by the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) - brought a complaint against Griffin in March 2022 in a Santa Fe-based state court seeking his removal from office under the 14th Amendment. CREW also backed the Colorado disqualification effort against Trump.

Noah Bookbinder, president of CREW, welcomed the Supreme Court's decision on Monday.

"By refusing to take up this appeal, the Supreme Court keeps in place the finding that January 6th was an insurrection, and ensures that states can still apply the 14th Amendment's disqualification clause to state officials," Bookbinder said.

Lawyers for Griffin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Griffin on Jan. 6 joined thousands of people at the Capitol, where he breached security barriers outside of the building and eventually assumed a leadership role in the mob and egged on the violence, according to court records.

State District Court Judge Francis Mathew in a September 2022 ruling disqualifying Griffin from public office wrote that he had "incited, encouraged and helped normalize the violence" on Jan. 6 and took "overt acts in support of the insurrection."

The New Mexico Supreme Court dismissed Griffin's appeal in November 2022 on procedural grounds and in February 2023 denied his request for reconsideration, prompting Griffin's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Griffin's lawyers argued in a court brief that the New Mexico judicial rulings violated Griffin's free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and that states cannot enforce Section 3 of the 14th Amendment unless Congress first passes legislation authorizing them to do so.

The 14th Amendment was ratified following the American Civil War of 1861-1865 in which seceding Southern states that allowed the practice of slavery rebelled against the U.S. government.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)