John McCain is constitutionally incapable of being President of the United States. I am not referring to the fact that he is, as Alexander Cockburn indelicately puts it, “a half-mad former POW tormented with PTSD and dying of melanoma.” I am talking about his lack of fitness under the U.S. Constitution, which requires the President to be a “natural born citizen.” And his candidacy is challengeable in the courts.
Virtually all the Obama supporters I’ve mentioned this to either explode with rage at my suggestion that they take up the legal challenge, or roll their eyes and tell me that the issue has been settled. A minority – generally, those with legal training – agree that there’s a potential challenge, but they aren’t interested because they believe that it’s not ethical to limit voters’ choices like I’m suggesting. This post outlines the case that there is a compelling legal argument that McCain is not a natural born citizen; that it is possible to legally challenge his candidacy based on his ineligibility; that the issue has not been settled; and that a court challenge is not an unethical course of action.
McCain is not a natural born citizen
The argument for McCain’s lack of fitness was made by Gabriel “Jack” Chin, who argued that the Panama Canal Zone, the U.S.-occupied territory where McCain was born, was within U.S. jurisdiction, but outside of U.S. limits. This is significant because the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants citizenship at birth to (almost) anyone born within U.S. limits, and the immigration laws at the time granted citizenship at birth to individuals born to U.S. citizens outside of U.S. limits and jurisdiction, as long as their parents met certain residency criteria. McCain’s parents met the criteria, but because he was born within U.S. jurisdiction, the law didn’t make him a citizen at birth. And because he was born outside of U.S. limits, the Constitution didn’t make him a citizen at birth. He became a citizen at age 11 months, when Congress amended the immigration law to grant citizenship to those who, like McCain, fell through the legislative crack.
While Chin’s case is quite good, a plausible argument to the contrary has recently been presented. According to this argument, the words “limits and jurisdiction” in the old legislation does not refer to two separate concepts, but is rather a stylistic repetition of a single concept, like “cease and desist” or “hue and cry,” and that in fact they refer just to limits, not jurisdiction.
If this is true, then the legislation makes anyone born to U.S. citizen parents who meet the residency requirements a U.S. citizen at birth, and this would include McCain. It’s possible that this argument would carry the day in a courtroom, but I think it more likely not, for a couple of reasons. First, unlike “cease”, “desist”, “hue” and “cry”, “limits” and “jurisdiction” are legal concepts. Moreover “jurisdiction” is a old concept, and the fact that it refers to the area under a country’s authority or control – that is, that it extends beyond the country’s limits – would have been known in 1795, when the statute was written. It is unlikely that the drafters of the statute would have used “jurisdiction” when they meant “limits”. Moreover, Chin shows that Congress was aware at least since 1932 that children born to U.S. citizen parents in unincorporated territories were not being born as citizens, and that they acted to correct the deficiency in 1937, after McCain was born.
Assuming that McCain was not a U.S. citizen at birth, then he is not a natural born citizen. The adjective “natural” corresponds to citizenship. One who is “naturalized” is one who has gone from being a non-citizen to being a citizen. Its counterpart is “natural-born”, meaning a citizen from birth. There is a bit of redundancy in saying that someone is a “natural-born citizen”, since the information that she is a citizen is contained both in the word “natural-born” and in the word “citizen”. But there’s nothing linguistically wrong with this kind of partial redundancy. The meaning of “naturalized citizen” is not disputed, and contains the same redundancy.
Thus, McCain is not a natural born citizen. The Constitution’s Article II requires the President to be either a natural born citizen or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Jokes about McCain’s age aside, he was not around at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Therefore he is not eligible to be President.
Posted under History, News, People, Politics
This post was written by Uri on October 13, 2008