A New Mexico judge has done the country a big favor.
Judge Francis Mathew upheld a little-known provision of the U.S. Constitution and removed a public official for participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. I hope other judges have the courage to follow his lead.
The principle that no person is above the law—that powerful people have to obey the laws like everyone else—is essential to a democratic society. If this principle is not enforced, corrupt leaders will undermine the rule of law and democracy itself.
Judge Mathew ruled that a county commissioner who participated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol can no longer hold public office. The ruling was based on a section of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed after the Civil War. It forbids anyone from holding public office if they had taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the country.
The judge found that Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin helped lead the mob that used violence to try to prevent Congress from affirming Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election. Griffin later bragged about his role and suggested that there might be another insurrection coming.
Judge Mathew’s ruling is a milestone in the effort to hold public officials accountable for trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election. It should provide a road map—and some moral courage—to other judges considering legal efforts to hold state legislators and others accountable for trying to undermine democracy.
Another important effort to hold powerful people accountable for the insurrection is being conducted by the House Select Committee that is investigating the insurrection and the schemes that led up to it.
The committee’s public hearings this summer gave the American people a powerful dose of truth-telling about the lies and deceptions of President Trump, members of his legal team, and his political allies. The committee’s investigation is continuing, and we can look forward to more public hearings this fall.
Members and staff of the committee have spent countless hours digging through emails and other public records and interviewing former Trump administration officials and lawyers, members of Congress, and far-right activists who promoted Trump’s lies about election fraud. They are still at it. Among the people they hope to interview this fall are former Vice President Mike Pence, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and far-right activist Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Truth is a first step toward accountability. But it cannot be the only step.
The committee’s efforts to get a full picture of the illegal scheming to overturn the election is essential. So is punishing wrongdoers and preventing future attempts to subvert our elections.
There are plenty of wrongdoers who need to be held accountable, punished, and prevented from using powerful government positions to undermine democracy and the rule of law. And that includes former President Trump, whose lies about a “stolen” election fueled the insurrectionists’ anger.
In our system of government, there are many people with roles to play in defending our democracy. Congress can use its oversight power to reveal the corruption within the White House. The Justice Department can prosecute criminals like those who attacked the Capitol Police—and those who broke other laws as they tried desperately to keep the defeated Trump in power. Judges can hold public officials accountable for violating the Constitution.
And we the voters can defend democracy by electing local, state, and national officials who are committed to the democratic process—and rejecting those who seek power for the purpose of interfering with our elections and our ability to hold powerful people accountable.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. A New York Times best-selling author, his next book “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free” will be published by Harper Collins in December 2022.