A New Mexico judge cites insurrection in barring a county commissioner from office

a man speaking into a microphone
Otero County, New Mexico Commissioner Couy Griffin speaks to reporters at federal court on June. 17, 2022. . (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

A county official in New Mexico who was convicted of entering a restricted area during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol must be immediately removed from office for his involvement in an insurrection, a judge decided Tuesday.

District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled that Couy Griffin, an Otero County commissioner, is now disqualified from holding public office because he violated Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment by participating in the Jan. 6 siege.

“He took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States … [and then] engaged in that insurrection after taking his oath,” Judge Mathew wrote.

The decision against Griffin, who made headlines earlier this year by refusing to certify his county’s election results, comes after some similar, high-profile Fourteenth Amendment challenges to incumbent lawmakers across the country failed.

Griffin told NPR that he was shocked by the ruling. He said the civil lawsuit that led to it was unfair and “purely political.” He claims the plaintiffs in the case were from liberal counties in the state and were being supported by liberal groups. He also said he was a target because of his relationship with former President Donald Trump.

“I don’t think it’s fair to accuse me of insurrection,” he says. “I didn’t have any intent of being a part of an insurrection or a violent mob. My intent of going to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 was because I had concerns that our elections had been compromised.”

Noah Bookbinder — the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW — said the ruling against Griffin is the first time since the Civil War era that any public official has been removed under the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars anyone from holding state or federal office if they engage or support any kind of insurrection or rebellion against the U.S.

This little-known provision was included in the Fourteenth Amendment in the wake of the Civil War, Bookbinder says, as a way to exclude those who were part of the Confederacy from holding public office again. He says it was used in the 1860s and then has been very rarely invoked since.

“We have been fortunate as a country to not have many episodes of insurrection — and certainly not insurrections in which elected officials have played a part,” Bookbinder says. “But now we had this thing happen where people in the U.S. engaged in an armed insurrection to stop the legally mandated counting of votes and the peaceful transfer of power. It really looked a whole lot like what the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment had in mind.”

CREW represented three New Mexico residents who brought the civil lawsuit against Griffin this past March and called for him to be removed.

According to the judge’s ruling, Griffin’s group, called Cowboys for Trump, “played a key role in Stop the Steal mobilization efforts” ahead of Jan. 6, 2021. Video from that day shows Griffin “working up” supporters of Trump against then-Vice President Mike Pence, the court says. And there is also footage of Griffin illegally breaching multiple security barriers and egging on violence by rallying rioters with a bullhorn.

Griffin says he was not violent while at the Capitol that day and wasn’t aware that he was trespassing at the time. A criminal court convicted Griffin of misdemeanor trespassing on Jan. 6, which he plans to appeal.

“I do regret the actions of many on that day that fought with police officers and destroyed government property,” he says. “I regret their actions but I don’t regret my actions. My own actions were lawful.”

Judge Mathew ordered that effective immediately, Griffin is “barred for life” from serving as a senator, congressman, elector or from holding any civil or military office federally or in any state.

The Albuquerque Journal has reported that Griffin’s commission term concludes at the end of the year, but that he is considering a run for sheriff.

Griffin told NPR he will appeal this latest ruling. At trial last month for the civil lawsuit, Griffin unsuccessfully sought to dismiss the case, the Journal reported.

Regardless of what happens next, Bookbinder says this is the first time a court has ruled that what happened on Jan. 6 was an insurrection. He says the ruling sends a message to other public officials across the country who have been undermining the results of the 2020 election, as well as other democratic norms.

“The court’s decision sent a message that powerful people can’t rise up against the execution of the laws of the United States and the peaceful transfer of power without consequences,” he says, “and the country needs to be protected against those who would undermine our democratic principles.”

Some high-profile legal efforts to remove public officials from their positions due to their involvement in Jan. 6 have failed so far.

In March, a judge blocked a lawsuit seeking to remove Republican North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn from running for reelection. And in May, officials in Georgia ruled that Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene could remain on the ballot after her role in the Capitol riot.

Earlier this year in New Mexico, Otero County commissioners at first declined to certify the county’s primary election, citing baseless claims about the security of voting machines. The state supreme court then stepped in, ordering the county to certify. Commissioners ultimately voted 2-1 for certification, with Griffin the lone no vote.

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