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Natural Born Presidents

08/21/2013 08:06 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

The question of who is and who is not eligible to become president is back in the news again, due to Senator Ted Cruz (assumed future Republican contender for the nomination) releasing his birth certificate to the media. I should note before we begin that this is really the second part of a two-part article, as yesterday I detailed what might be called the history of birtherism in American politics. Today, we're going to look at the question from a legal and semantic point of view.

Any such examination must begin with the original language in the United States Constitution. From Article II, Section 1:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

As stated yesterday, this clause has never actually been adequately defined in a court of law. Which means that, for the time being, it is open to interpretation by all. It means whatever anyone claims it means, to put this another way, at least until we get a definitive Supreme Court ruling on the matter, one way or another.

The problems of interpretation all stem from the inexact nature of the English language. The first problem is the phrase "natural born." What, exactly, does "natural born" mean? The more common phrase in use today is "native born" (or "native-born," if you are a fan of hyphens), which would seem to have a clearer meaning: born on native (American) soil. But even if we take "natural born" to be the equivalent of "native born," questions still remain. If they didn't, then the Senate wouldn't have bothered passing a resolution stating that they believed John McCain was eligible to become president when he ran. McCain, of course, was born not in the United States, but in the Panama Canal Zone. Which leads to the question of whether anyone born in an American territory is eligible for the highest office in the United States. Would a Puerto Rican or a native of Guam be eligible to become president? Nobody really knows, but the answer would seem to be "yes," seeing as how few argued that McCain wasn't eligible when he ran.

But is where you were born really the issue? Or is to whom you were born more important? American citizenship is considered a birthright of any child born to at least one American parent. There are some legalistic rules surrounding this concept, but the basic rule says that a child born to an American citizen mother or father is automatically an American at birth, no matter where they are born. This is what Ted Cruz is arguing now, and the key point that the Obama "birthers" completely ignored for many years. If a child is born to an American mother, it doesn't matter whether the child was born in the Canal Zone, on board a ship or airplane in transit (not in any country), in Canada, or even (gasp!) in Kenya -- the child is still an American citizen at birth. But does this satisfy the "natural born" metric? Again, nobody really knows for sure, but as of now the conventional wisdom says that "an American citizen at birth" equals "natural born" for the purposes of presidential eligibility.

If it ever did become a court case, there might even be a surprising outcome no one has foreseen. Just for the sake of argument, would a child born by caesarean be eligible to become president? Any decent lawyer worth a darn could easily argue that an obstetrical operation disqualifies a child because they were not, by definition, "natural born." Nature would have been trumped by medical science, and thus (again, it could easily be argued in court) the birth was not "natural" at all. It seems a ridiculous conclusion on the face of it, but then ridiculous conclusions are a dime a dozen in the arena of the courtroom. How many Supreme Court decisions have enraged you because of what you considered their faulty logic or reasoning, after all?

It would be hard to tell (if it's even possible) how many of our 44 presidents were "natural born" and how many required the intervention of a doctor or midwife in some "unnatural" way. This sort of information isn't readily available, even in exhaustive biographies of famous men. So perhaps we've already had a president who was not "natural born" (under this definition of the term). It would take some serious medical and historical research to even know the answer to that question.

But maybe none of this even matters. It all depends on how you weigh your commas. Let's look at the original phrase once again: "No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President." The part that everyone skips over is the phrase between the first and second commas -- "or a Citizen of the United States." So, which comma is more important? Is it the first one or the second one? Did the framers mean "or a Citizen of the United States at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution" or did they mean "a natural born Citizen or a Citizen of the United States"? The phrasing seems somewhat redundant no matter how you read it, in fact. Why specify both? Could "a Citizen of the United States" become president even if they weren't "natural born"? It seems to say that this is acceptable (the use of "or" instead of "and" or "who was" to join the two phrases), which would mean the dreams some still have of a President Schwarzenegger could indeed be realized.

This defies the commonly-accepted meaning of the phrase today, but that doesn't mean that a court wouldn't agree that the entire "natural born" question is irrelevant, as long as a candidate is currently an American citizen, as long as he or she had lived here for fourteen years.

What it all boils down to is that Ted Cruz is free to run for president, as is just about anyone. Whether he can convince the country that he is eligible or not will likely be a matter of politics. He was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father, but as long as he asserts that this fits the constitutional definition of eligibility, he'll probably get his name on the ballot.

Because, as we started with, the entire matter is open to interpretation by all, at least until the Supreme Court rules on the issue one way or another. Or until the Constitution itself is amended to clear up exactly who and who is not allowed to be president. Until we get to that point, however, it's really anyone's guess what "natural born" truly means, and where the bar is ultimately set for presidential eligibility. I doubt there will be a "birther" movement that tries to keep Ted Cruz from running, but until one of these birther movements actually puts a case before the high court, the only answer is that it's open to anyone's interpretation who can and who cannot be president.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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