Jan. 6 speaker Madison Cawthorn isn't allowed to be in Congress, challenge says The North Carolina Republican is accused of engaging in insurrection, which would make him ineligible for office under a provision in the 14th Amendment.

Post-Confederate law bars Jan. 6 speaker Rep. Cawthorn from office, challengers argue

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

He's the youngest member of Congress and has gained a national following, but North Carolina Republican Madison Cawthorn could get shut out from running for reelection. Lawyers say his actions related to the attack on the U.S. Capitol violated a section of the 14th Amendment. Steve Harrison from member station WFAE explains.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Cawthorn promoted the January 6 Save America rally on Twitter, saying, quote, "the future of the republic hinges on the actions of a solitary few." And he was a prominent speaker there, pushing baseless claims of election fraud hours before the attack on the Capitol.

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MADISON CAWTHORN: But, my friends, the Democrats, with all the fraud they have done in this election, the Republicans hiding and not fighting, they are trying to silence your voice.

HARRISON: Months later, he said if elections are stolen, there will be, quote, "more bloodshed."

RON FEIN: It's not just that Cawthorn spoke at that pre-attack demonstration, alongside other speakers who were demanding trial by combat and talking about sacrificing blood to fight for America.

HARRISON: That's Ron Fein, legal director for Free Speech For People, which is funding the challenge to Cawthorn's candidacy.

FEIN: But we also have reliable reporting that Cawthorn and his team were communicating with the planners ahead of January 6 and helped to plan some of these events.

HARRISON: And that's the crux of their challenge - that Cawthorn is an insurrectionist, just as Confederates were who took up arms against the United States 160 years ago.

Eligibility challenges in North Carolina or any state usually revolve around simple questions, like does the candidate live in their district? The state's framework for resolving eligibility questions will likely be used for the challenge against Cawthorn. And under state law, the burden is on Cawthorn to show he is eligible, that his candidacy does not violate the Reconstruction-era amendment.

Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who used to be a Republican, is working on the case. Orr says there was an insurrection and that a key question is...

BOB ORR: Did he provide aid and comfort and engage in this? We think there's certainly enough evidence on the public record that we know of now, and we'll certainly be looking for additional evidence.

HARRISON: By additional evidence, Orr means being able to depose Cawthorn under oath to learn about any involvement he may have had with January 6 plotters. But Cawthorn this week filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the challenge. One of his attorneys, James Bopp Jr., says the challenge against Cawthorn is a, quote, "despicable attempt by Democrats to undermine democracy." Bopp says the challenge fails on several levels, first of which - Cawthorn's First Amendment rights.

JAMES BOPP JR: The wording in the Section 3 of the 14th Amendment is, quote, "engaged" - connotes conduct, not speech.

HARRISON: Bopp also says he doesn't believe the attack was an insurrection.

BOPP: It spits on the grave of all those Union soldiers that fought in the Civil War to preserve the union and free the slaves, who fought a bona fide rebellion and insurrection.

HARRISON: Fein of Free Speech For People says Bopp is rewriting history, that after the attack, it was widely acknowledged to be an insurrection.

FEIN: President Trump's defense lawyer in his impeachment trial conceded that it was an insurrection.

HARRISON: Depending on what happens with Cawthorn's lawsuit, his eligibility will be taken up by a panel of local elections officials. Any appeal would be considered by the State Board of Elections, which has three Democrats and two Republicans. Fein says his group will use the same insurrectionist challenge against other candidates, including Donald Trump, should he run in 2024.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Charlotte.

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