Madison Cawthorn sues his own state to stop Jan. 6 challenge before North Carolina election board

Cawthorn, a freshman House Republican, sues over effort to disqualify him from running for re-election

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published February 1, 2022 2:58PM (EST)

U.S. Rep Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C. has filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina State Board of Elections over its inquiry into whether he is eligible for reelection, arguing that running for office is a "quintessential First Amendment activity."

His suit comes weeks after eleven North Carolina voters urged the board earlier this month to preclude the conservative's candidacy, citing Cawthorn's participation in the rally that preceded the January 6 Capitol riot. State election officials are reportedly aiming the block Cawthorn's candidacy on the basis of the 14th Amendment, which states that no member of Congress "shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same."

But on Monday, in a lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, the conservative firebrand disputed ever engaging in an "insurrection or rebellion."

"Running for political office is quintessential First Amendment activity and afforded great protection," Cawthorn says in suit, arguing that his involvement in the rally does not exempt him from a political bid. 

Ron Fein, legal director at Free Speech For People, which filed the petition to challenge Cawthorn's eligibility, told WRAL that "it is unfortunate that Madison Cawthorn has decided to run to federal court instead of complying with the process before the State Board of Elections." 

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Fein has also said that Cawthorn is just one of many conservative lawmakers the group intends to challenge on account of their role in fomenting the riot.

RELATED: Rep. Madison Cawthorn getting divorced after less than a year of marriage

According to Slate's Mark Joseph Stern, there may be substantial constitutional precedent to contest Cawthorn's eligibility. 

For instance, on Dec. 16, amid Donald Trump's baseless claims of widespread election fraud, Cawthorn implored his followers to "lightly threaten" their representatives, telling them to say: "If you don't support election integrity, I'm coming after you." During the January 6 "Stop the Steal" rally just weeks later, Cawthorn tore into other Republicans for "not fighting" against Biden's electoral victory. After rioters breached the House floor of the Capitol, the conservative tweeted that "the battle is on the house floor." 

Gerard Magliocca, an Indiana University McKinney School of Law professor who is serving as an expert witness on the case, told Slate that North Carolina's election board's process "is not inconsistent with the 14th Amendment," meaning that the Cawthorn might be found ineligible under a constitutional clause. 

Cawthorn, 26, became the youngest member of Congress in November of 2020, when he was elected to serve North Carolina's 11th Congressional District. An ardent supporter of Trump, Cawthorn is known for his fiery and often conspiratorial rhetoric. As Salon reported in the past, Cawthorn has been accused of sexual misconduct and lying about the car crash that left him paralyzed. 

RELATED: Rising GOP star Madison Cawthorn faces renewed scrutiny as sexual misconduct allegations resurface

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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