Supreme Court rejects appeal by former New Mexico county commissioner banned for Jan. 6 insurrection

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal from a former New Mexico county commissioner who was kicked out of office over his participation in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Former Otero County commissioner Couy Griffin, a cowboy pastor who rode to national political fame by embracing then-President Donald Trump with a series of horseback caravans, is the only elected official thus far to be banned from office in connection with the Capitol attack, which disrupted Congress as it was trying to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory over Trump.

At a 2022 trial in state district court, Griffin received the first disqualification from office in over a century under a provision of the 14th Amendment written to prevent former Confederates from serving in government after the Civil War.

Though the Supreme Court ruled this month that states don’t have the ability to bar Trump or other candidates for federal offices from the ballot, the justices said different rules apply to state and local candidates.

“We conclude that States may disqualify persons holding or attempting to hold state office,” the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion.

The outcome of Griffin’s case could bolster efforts to hold other state and local elected officials accountable for their involvement in the Jan. 6 attack.

Griffin, a Republican, was convicted in federal court of entering a restricted area on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6 and received a 14-day prison sentence. The sentence was offset by time served after his arrest in Washington, where he had returned to protest Biden’s 2021 inauguration. That conviction is under appeal.

Griffin contends that he entered the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6 without recognizing that it had been designated as a restricted area and that he attempted to lead a crowd in prayer using a bullhorn, without engaging in violence.

The recent ruling in the Trump case shut down a push in dozens of states to end Trump’s Republican candidacy for president over claims he helped instigate the insurrection to try to prevent Biden, a Democrat, from replacing him in the White House in 2020.

The accusations of insurrection against Griffin were filed on behalf of three New Mexico residents by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning group that also brought the lawsuit in Colorado to disqualify Trump.

CREW has outlined the case for investigating several current state legislators who went to Washington on Jan. 6.

In Griffin’s 2022 trial in state district court, New Mexico Judge Francis Mathew recognized the Jan. 6 attack as an insurrection and ruled that Griffin aided that insurrection, without engaging in violence, contributing to a delay in Congress’ election certification proceedings.

Griffin’s appeal of the disqualification asserted that only Congress, and not a state court, has the power to enforce the anti-insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment by legislation, and it urged the Supreme Court to rule on whether the events on Jan. 6 constituted an “insurrection” as defined in the Constitution.

It also invoked Griffin’s rights to free speech protections.

“If the decision … is to stand, at least in New Mexico, it is now the crime of insurrection to gather people to pray together for the United States of America on the unmarked restricted grounds of the Capitol building,” Florida-based defense attorney Peter Ticktin argued on behalf of Griffin in court filings.

At trial, Mathew, the judge, called Griffin’s free-speech arguments self-serving and not credible, noting that the then-commissioner spread lies about the 2020 election being stolen from Trump in a series of speeches at rallies during a cross-country journey starting in New Mexico, calling on crowds to go with him to Washington on Jan. 6 and join the “war” over the presidential election results.

Mathew said recordings by a videographer accompanying Griffin outside the U.S. Capitol showed that the county commissioner “incited the mob, even after seeing members of the mob a short distance away attack police officers and violently try to break into the Capitol building.”

The New Mexico Supreme Court later refused to hear the case after Griffin missed procedural deadlines.

On the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack this year, Griffin cast himself as the victim of political persecution as he spoke to a gathering in the rural community of Gillette, Wyoming, at the invitation of a county Republican Party.

“God is really allowing me to experience some amazing days,” Griffin said. “Jan. 6 was a day like no other. It was a day where a type of patriotism was expressed that I’d never seen before, and I was honored to be there.”

In 2019, Griffin forged a group of rodeo acquaintances into the promotional group called Cowboys for Trump, which staged horseback parades to support Trump’s conservative message about gun rights, immigration controls and abortion restrictions.

While still a county commissioner, Griffin joined with Republican colleagues in refusing to certify results of the June 2022 primary election based on distrust of the voting systems used to tally the vote, even though the county’s election official said there were no problems. The board ultimately certified the election on a 2-1 vote with Griffin still voting no based on a “gut feeling.”

Griffin withstood a recall petition drive in 2021. After his disqualification from office, Griffin was tried and acquitted by a jury in his home county in March 2023 of allegations that he declined to register and disclose donors to Cowboys for Trump.

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Lee reported from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Riccardi reported from Denver.

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