Guest Essayist: William C. Duncan, Director of the Marriage Law Foundation
1: In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
2: Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
3: Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
4: Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, answers open questions about presidential succession.
What happens when the president dies in office?
Under Article II, if the president is removed, dies, resigns or is unable to perform his duties, these duties fall to the vice president (section 1, clause 6). Alexander Hamilton said a vice president “may occasionally become a substitute for the president” (Federalist 68). While this seems clear, the exact status of the vice president when taking on the president’s duties or acting as a “substitute” was not certain. When William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia in 1841, Vice President John Tyler insisted on becoming the president rather than just an “acting president” as some urged. See Mark O. Hatfield, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (1997) at http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/john_tyler.pdf. All eight of the vice presidents who assumed the presidency on the death of the president followed this precedent. Section One of the 25th Amendment formalized the precedent, specifying that if the president is removed, dies or resigns “the Vice President shall become President.”
What happens if there is a vacancy in the vice presidency?
The eight times a president died in office and the vice president became president there was a vacancy in the vice presidency, as occurred also when seven vice presidents died in office and two resigned. See John D. Feerick, “Presidential Succession and Inability: Before and After the Twenty-Fifth Amendment” 79 Fordham Law Review 907, 943-944 (2010). The Congressional Research Service notes, “for some twenty percent of United States history there had been no Vice President to step up.” CRS Annotated Constitution, “Twenty-fifth Amendment” at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/constitution/pdf2002/043.pdf. Section Two of the 25th Amendment provides the solution for these instances by allowing the president to nominate individuals to fill vacancies in the vice presidency. The person nominated can take office when a majority of the House and Senate confirmed the nomination. Gerald Ford (in 1973) and Nelson Rockefeller (in 1974) became vice presidents following this procedure.
What happens if the president knows he or she cannot fulfill the duties of the presidency?
The Constitution did not specify the procedure to follow in the case of a president being incapacitated. If the president knows of the incapacitation beforehand, as in a planned medical procedure, section Three of the 25th Amendment allows the president to notify the President pro tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House that the Vice President will be Acting President during a period when the president cannot fulfill the duties of that office. When ready to resume the duties, the president notifies these same officials. President George W. Bush invoked this portion of the Amendment twice for routine medical procedures.
What happens when the president is incapacitated but cannot or will not step aside and let the vice president act as president?
Before his death by assassination, President James A. Garfield lived in a coma for eighty days. President Woodrow Wilson had a debilitating stroke a year and a half before the end of his final term. President Dwight D. Eisenhower experienced a heart attack and stroke while in office. See Calvin Bellamy, “Presidential Disability: The Twenty-Fifth Amendment Still an Untried Tool” 9 Boston University Public Interest Law Journal 373, 376-377 (2000). Until, the ratification of section four of the 25th Amendment there was no Constitutional direction for handling situations where the president could not function and could not or would not step aside. Now, the vice president “and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide” can notify legislative leaders of the president’s inability to fulfill the duties of the office and the vice president then begins acting as president. The president can resume office by notifying the legislative leaders that there is no inability. When the vice president (and the executive officials) disagree with the president about the president’s capacity and send dueling declarations to Congress, Congress decides the issue. Specifically, if 2/3 of members of Congress agree that the president is incapacitated, the vice president acts in the president’s stead, otherwise the president continues to function (and White House meetings are, no doubt, chilly).
William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation (www.marriagelawfoundation.org). He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.