N. Carolina Rep. Cawthorn seeks to block candidacy challenge

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn has sued to block efforts by voters seeking to prevent him from running for Congress this year because of his involvement in the January 2021 rally that preceded the U.S. Capitol riot.

The Republican’s lawsuit, filed in federal court, says the state’s candidate challenge process violates his constitutional rights and should be overturned. His lawyers also cite as nonapplicable a post-Civil War amendment to the Constitution that prohibits members of Congress who have engaged in an insurrection to continue serving.

The voters’ protest, initiated last month with the help of a national election and campaign finance reform group, is likely to be the first of similar candidate challenges in other states against members of Congress associated with the insurrection. The 14th Amendment says, in part, that 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 amendment was aimed in part at preventing congressmen who had fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War from returning to Congress.

Cawthorn, 26 and currently in his first term representing western North Carolina, said Tuesday in a news release from his lawyer’s office detailing the litigation that he has “never engaged in, or would ever engage in, an insurrection against the United States.”

He said the amendment provision and North Carolina candidate challenge law are “being used as a weapon by liberal Democrats to attempt to defeat our democracy by having state bureaucrats, rather than the people, choose who will represent North Carolina in Congress.”

“I’m defending not only my rights, but the right of the people to democratically elect their representatives,” he said.

Nearly a dozen voters urged the State Board of Elections to disqualify Cawthorn as a candidate, saying he fails to comply with the portion of the 14th Amendment pertaining to insurrections. Cawthorn’s speech at the rally supporting then-President Donald Trump, his other comments and information in published reports provide a “reasonable suspicion or belief” that he helped facilitate the insurrection, the challenge reads.

Under state law, the five-member state board must create a special panel of county board members from the new 13th Congressional District that Cawthorn plans to run in. The panel is required to conduct a hearing that ideally will be completed within four weeks. State judges have put formation of the panel on hold, however, while redistricting litigation is pending.

The lawsuit, filed against the board in Raleigh federal court Monday, says the candidate investigation law violates Cawthorn’s right to run for political office because it is triggered by a “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing and shifts the burden of proof away from his accusers.

“Here, Rep. Cawthorn is required to produce countervailing evidence to prove a negative,” says the lawsuit, signed in part by James Bopp, a longtime Indiana-based elections lawyer connected to conservative causes.

The U.S. House “is the exclusive judge of the qualifications of its members,” the lawsuit says. An 1872 federal law 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. The 14th Amendment provision cited by the voters who are protesting Cawthorn’s candidacy states that Congress can vote to remove such disqualifications. Therefore, the provision doesn’t apply to Cawthorn, according to the lawsuit.

Cawthorn also seeks a preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the law. The News & Observer of Raleigh was the first to report on it.

Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech for People and a lawyer representing the North Carolina voters who filed the challenge, said he will oppose Cawthorn’s lawsuit in court. Cawthorn’s “attempt to bypass the state’s well-developed procedures for resolving candidacy challenges is based on misunderstandings of federal and state law,” Fein said in an emailed statement.

Cawthorn, a close ally of Trump, said last month in an interview that he stands by his Jan. 6 actions, particularly his objection to the certifications of the presidential election, which was won by Joe Biden.

North Carolina’s primary election is currently set for May 17 after being delayed from its initial date of March 8. It could be postponed again if the state Supreme Court strikes down the congressional boundaries that the General Assembly is redrawing. Lawmakers would have to repeat the mapping process.