Skip to main content

Federal Judge Blocks State Candidate Challenge Proceedings Against Rep. Madison Cawthorn, Cites Law That Forgave Confederates

Madison Cawthorn

Madison Cawthorn

A federal judge rejected a state candidate challenge against proDonald Trump Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), finding that an 1872 Amnesty Law forgave insurrectionists retrospectively and prospectively.

Chief U.S. District Judge Richard E. Myers, II, a Trump appointee, delivered his ruling from the bench during a hearing on Friday, court records show. Myers has not yet released a written opinion detailing his reasoning for granting a preliminary injunction, but attorneys from both parties confirmed that the ruling centered around the Reconstruction-era law.

The Amnesty Act reversed most of the penalties against former Confederates under the 14th Amendment, the third section of which barred any holding of public office by those who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States or gave “aid or comfort” to its enemies.

The non-profit group Free Speech for People cited that language to file a challenge against Cawthorn’s participation in the North Carolina primaries, arguing that he helped foment insurrection by speaking at Trump’s rally on Jan. 6.

“Of note, the court did not rule that Cawthorn is innocent of insurrection,” the group’s legal director Ron Fein wrote in a statement.

Judge Myers did, however, find that the Amnesty Act’s removal of “all legal and political disabilities” under the 14th Amendment had been intended for both retrospective and future application, according to both of the parties.

James Bopp, a prominent conservative attorney and former Republican National Committee vice chairman, celebrated the ruling.

“I hope that’s an end to this nationwide campaign to smear and disqualify multiple members of Congress and upset our democracy and elections,” Bopp said in a phone interview. “This is the first case being pushed by well-funded, national, dark-money groups that is threatening to do this all over the country.”

Free Speech for People, an Austin, Texas-based 501(c)3 that reported more than $1.3 million in revenue in 2019, vowed to appeal the ruling. Bopp, hardly a foe of loosening restraints on political spending, helped spearhead the Republicans’ Citizens United litigation that partially fueled the rise of super-PACs. He also previously represented True the Vote, a Houston-based 501(c)3 that filed election lawsuits in four federal courts before precipitously withdrawing from all of them.

Bopp bristled at the use of the 14th Amendment against those accused of involvement in Jan. 6.

“I think that’s a ridiculous comparison that distorts what insurrection and rebellion means and in effect, spits on the grave of all of those Civil War soldiers, some 600,000, who were killed during that actual insurrection and rebellion,” he said, providing a widely-debated number of the combined Union and Confederate war dead. “And we shouldn’t be doing that.”

Cawthorn filed his federal lawsuit this year on Jan. 31, some weeks after receiving several challenges to his candidacy for this year’s midterm elections.

“Rep. Cawthorn vigorously denies that he engaged in ‘insurrection or rebellion’ against the United States, but this litigation is not based in Rep. Cawthorn’s factual defenses,” his lawsuit said. “Instead, this matter is before the Court based upon various constitutional and legal challenges to the North Carolina Challenge Statute itself and its application here.”

Free Speech for People argued that the case should never have been heard in federal court, in a gambit Fein described as an end-run around “North Carolina’s well-established process for verifying candidates’ eligibility.”

“Until the decision is overturned on appeal, the state process is on pause, and Madison Cawthorn is temporarily shielded from answering questions about whether his involvement in January 6 disqualifies him under the Fourteenth Amendment,” Fein said.

Fein said that the court’s ruling effectively found that Congress “essentially repealed” the 14th Amendment through the Amnesty Act, even though one constitutional amendment can only be repealed by another one.

“Further, Congress had passed the 14th Amendment just six years earlier, and, according to this court ruling, the 1872 amnesty law, by a trick of wording that–although no one noticed it at the time, or in the 150 years since–completely undermined Congress’s careful decision to write the Insurrectionist Disqualification Clause to apply to future insurrections,” he said.

“That is patently absurd,” he added.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime:

Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."