Maybe it's obvious, but I'm asking this question in the context of the potential SCOTUS review of the Colorado Supreme Court ("CSC") ruling which upheld the Denver District Court's ("DDC") ruling that Trump "engaged in insurrection" (page 95).

IF SCOTUS does issue some other ruling that goes against CSC's ruling on the insurrection issue, what happens exactly? Does it also invalidate the DDC Ruling? My guess is that it depends on exactly what the SCOTUS ruling is. That is, I think they could "vacate" which if I understand that term correctly, would leave the DDC's ruling in place as if CSC had not ruled on it at all. Or they could "reverse" it would I think would then also reverse the DDC's ruling. I'm sure there might be other options too??

Apologies if this is a really basic law question, but I was unable to find any clear answers on Google. Also - yes, I'm aware that the DDC also ruled that Amendment 14 Section 3 doesn't apply to the President. I want to make very clear that my question is not political and I'm not looking for answers on the merits of whether he did or didn't commit insurrection or whether Section 3 applies to the President - I'm ONLY trying to understand the legal procedural consequences, and just happen using this specific case as an example.

2 Answers 2


An appellate court's three main options are -- as you identified -- to affirm, reverse, or vacate the decision of the court it's reviewing.

Affirming would mean saying that the previous decision was correct, reversing means saying that the decision was incorrect, and vacating is essentially waving a magic wand to say that they decision never happened.

Technically speaking, none of these actions directly effect the parties; they just give the lower court instructions for what to do once the case comes back from the appellate court. When a case goes through multiple levels of appeal like this one has, the process just iterates until it gets back down to the trial court.

The court does have several other options though:

The Supreme Court or any other court of appellate jurisdiction may affirm, modify, vacate, set aside or reverse any judgment, decree, or order of a court lawfully brought before it for review, and may remand the cause and direct the entry of such appropriate judgment, decree, or order, or require such further proceedings to be had as may be just under the circumstances.

So the court could modify a lower court order, for instance, by saying that a defendant's sentence was largely correct, but that there needs to be some minor adjustment to it.

It could "set aside" a judgment, but I honestly don't know how that's any different from vacating.

And there's also the possibility of just remanding the decision, which means kicking the case back to the court it came from, typically with instructions to take some action once the case comes back. This routinely happens with reversals, where the court will reverse and remand for the lower court to enter a new judgment applying the law as the appellate Court has just explained it.

However, there can also be a remand with instructions to do something else, like engage in further fact finding or to answer some legal question that didn't get addressed for whatever reason. Just to make things up, maybe the court would say that Colorado was entitled to kick Trump off the ballot but only after hearing from him personally, and so it would reverse and remand with instructions to subpoena him for an evidentiary hearing about whether he engaged in insurrection.


What happens if SCOTUS issues a ruling that contradicts a State Supreme Court, which itself upheld a District Court ruling?

While the answer from bdb484 lists pretty much every possible scenario, only two are likely, if the Colorado Supreme Court decision is not affirmed.

First, SCOTUS reverses the decision and holds that Colorado cannot exclude Trump from the ballot.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court could hold that the office of the Presidency is not subject to Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, and that therefore, Trump is eligible to appear on the ballot as a matter of law. This would then be remanded to the Colorado Supreme Court which would remand to the Denver District Court which would enter a trial court order to that effect with no further deliberation or evidentiary hearings.

Second, SCOTUS vacates the Colorado Supreme Court ruling and remands for further proceedings in light of some different federal law legal standard than the one articulated in the Colorado Supreme Court opinion.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court might hold that a former President has engaged in or encouraged an insurrection only if "military style weapons" were employed in the alleged insurrection, and then remand to the Colorado Supreme Court to determine whether or not the standard was met, which the Colorado Supreme Court would probably, in turn, remand to the Denver District Court to decide based upon a new evidentiary hearing or a review of the existing evidentiary record in light of the new legal standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court might hold that a state court can do what Colorado did, but only if the findings of fact are made based upon evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and then the case would be remanded to the trial court to evaluate the facts (possibly with a new evidentiary hearing) under that burden of proof.

Of course, if the Colorado Supreme Court decision is affirmed, then the stay of enforcement of the Colorado Supreme Court decision would be lifted and the Colorado Secretary of State would prepare a ballot without Trump on it for the GOP primary in Colorado.

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