Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A constitutional question

So it has been suggested that the media backlash against Lou Dobbs’ ill-advised support of the “birther” conspiracy theory—that Obama was not in fact born in Hawaii and is therefore not a natural-born American—will go to great lengths to subdue the movement, as high-profile endorsements will likely be scarce now. I’m skeptical, but here’s hoping.

Instead, I have a constitutional question. I read this article in Salon.com this morning arguing that the law prohibiting American citizens born elsewhere from being president should be repealed by a constitutional amendment. It makes a good case, but what makes me curious is that the law specifically excludes the President and Vice President, with nothing said about the rest of the line of succession. If both the President and Vice President die or are unable to govern, then the Speaker of the House becomes president; after Speaker, the President pro tempore of the Senate, then Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General … then from there on down through the cabinet.

There are no laws prohibiting U.S. citizens who immigrated from elsewhere from being elected or named to any of the positions listed above. So my question is this: if a catastrophe occurred that eliminated a chunk of the line of succession (if the Capitol Building was bombed during the State of the Union, say) leaving the Secretary of Education as the next in line, would that person be legally able to assume the office of the President if he or she was not a natural-born U.S. citizen?

As a postscript to all this, the Salon article points out that the two categories of “natural-born” citizenry are “to be born on U.S. soil, to U.S. citizens or foreign nationals” and “to be born to one or more U.S. citizen parents abroad.” Huh. So unless the birthers want to challenge Obama’s mother’s citizenship, their argument is kind of moot, no?

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