Federal judge blocks Rep. Madison Cawthorn's candidacy challenge
A federal judge on Friday blocked an effort by voters to disqualify North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn from seeking reelection this fall by alleging his involvement with the rally that preceded the U.S. Capitol riot in January 2021 made him ineligible.
U.S. District Judge Richard Myers in Wilmington issued a preliminary injunction, according to a hearing summary provided by the federal court system. The order is a victory for Cawthorn, a 26-year-old, first-term Republican and close ally of former President Donald Trump.
Myers declared the state's candidate challenge process didn't apply to a portion of the 14th Amendment designed to prevent congressmen who had fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War from returning to Congress, according to attorneys involved in the challenge and Cawthorn's lawsuit.
Several North Carolina voters have filed candidate challenges alleging Cawthorn is disqualified because evidence shows he “engaged in insurrection” related to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, including the rally in which he spoke and where the presidential election outcome was questioned.
The amendment says no one can serve in Congress “who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress . . . to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same.”
The ruling means the State Board of Elections can’t move ahead with a formal review of his qualifications based on the voters' arguments, which would have required the creation of a special panel to investigate as soon as Monday.
Cawthorn, who voted against certifying Joe Biden's presidential victory days after he was sworn in to office, says he’s never participated in an insurrection against the U.S., and the amendment didn't apply to him. He filed a lawsuit that sought to block candidacy investigations by the State Board of Elections against him and anyone else, saying the process violates his due process rights.
Myers, who was nominated to the federal bench by Trump and confirmed in 2019, issued a more narrow ruling, declaring that challenges under the portion of the 14th Amendment couldn't be heard by North Carolina elections officials.
Myers cited an 1872 federal law that removed office-holding disqualifications for most Confederates but kept the prohibition in part for those who served in only a couple of specific sessions of Congress, according to John Wallace, an attorney for the voters challenging Cawthorn, who was in the courtroom.
The 14th Amendment provision states that Congress can vote to remove such disqualifications. Therefore, the provision doesn’t apply to Cawthorn, according to his lawsuit.
“HUGE VICTORY!” Cawthorn's campaign tweeted. “The left’s lawfare tactics have failed. On to reelection!”
Free Speech for People, a national election and campaign finance reform group backing the challenges, was disappointed with the decision. The group has said it intends to file similar challenges against other members of Congress associated with the insurrection.
"The ruling must be reversed on appeal, and the right of voters to bring this challenge to Cawthorn’s eligibility must be preserved.” Ron Fein, the group’s legal director, said in a written statement. The State Board of Elections, a lawsuit defendant, was reviewing the court's decision, board spokesperson Pat Gannon said.
North Carolina government attorneys for the elections board said in filings the state had the authority to police which candidates should or shouldn't be disqualified under the 14th Amendment provision, just like the powers used to enforce age and residency requirements before elections.
Candidate challenges were initially brought in January, after Cawthorn had officially filed to run in the 13th District created by the General Assembly during redistricting.
But redistricting litigation led to two more redraws that largely eliminated that district and shifted the 13th to eastern North Carolina. Cawthorn decided this week to run in a far-western 11th District that largely mirrors the region he represents now. Since challenges must come from voters within the district in which the candidate is running, the old challenges had become moot, and two voters in the new 11th District filed challenges on Wednesday.
If the ruling stands, Cawthorn will face seven other Republicans running in the May 17 GOP primary for the 11th District nomination. Six Democrats also filed to run.