Guess Essayist: Horace Cooper, legal commentator and the Director of the Center for Law and Regulation at the Institute for Liberty

Amendment XXV Section 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.

Since the nation’s founding there have been lingering questions about the presidential succession process.  As drafted by the framers, Article II of the U.S. Constitution provided that the vice president shall “discharge the Powers and Duties” of the president in the case of the president’s “Death, Resignation, or Inability.”

Seemingly clear enough in 1787, it increasingly became obvious there were serious gaps in the process.  Congress was given the responsibility to work out the details for what might occur if both the Vice President and President were incapacitated.  At the same time the Constitution was opaque over what constituted inability or scenarios in which a previously incapacitated President might have his authority restored.

Until the 25th amendment was ratified, the vice presidency had been vacant 16 times after a president or vice president had died or resigned. *

President Garfield tragic assassination was a major case in point regarding Presidential Succession.  Assassin Charles J. Guiteau disgruntled over not being able to obtain a federal post shot President Garfield.  The president would slip in and out of comas over the next 80 days.  As a result he would perform only one official act during this period – the signing of an extradition paper. President Woodrow Wilson was disabled by a stroke in 1919–1921. Many presidents have suffered shorter periods of disability. In no instance were the disability provisions invoked. *

Many in Washington thought that President Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955 and then subsequent stroke in 1957 made clear that the modern presidency needed a succession plan.  However, the subsequent campaign between Nixon and Kennedy, either of whom would set the record for youngest president in US history moved the issue to the back burner.

Ironically, it was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, which brought the issue immediately to the forefront.  This far into the 20th century the United States couldn’t answer long-standing questions such as when the president died, did the vice president automatically become president, or only serve as acting president? What happened when the vice presidency was vacant?  The Twenty-fifth Amendment, would at long last answer these questions.

Stymied during the Eisenhower administration, this time the urgency was clear.  Even The American Bar Association endorsed the proposal.  On January 6, 1965, Senator Birch Bayh formally proposed the amendment.  It was passed by Congress on July 6, 1965, and ratified on February 10, 1967, making it the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.

Reportedly Presidents G HW Bush and Bill Clinton established detailed plans in compliance with Section 3 to deal with incapacity during their terms although ultimately they never needed to be invoked.

Horace Cooper is a legal commentator and the Director of the Center for Law and Regulation at the Institute for Liberty


June 7, 2012

Essay #79

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