Mitt Romney’s recent decision to hold an event with Donald Trump provoked a shitstorm of renewed focus on the Donald’s birther credentials. Once again the center of attention, Trump failed to disappoint:
Now, there’s something I’ve never understood about birthers. Well, there are a lot of things I’ve never understood about birthers, but let’s focus on one. First, let’s review the relevant clause of the Constitution:
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.
Birthers focus on two words above: ‘natural born’. Specifically, they tend to obsess over the place of Obama’s birth. But here’s what I never understood: even if Obama were born in Kenya and not Hawaii, why would that disqualify him for the Presidency? No one disputes that Obama’s mother is Ann Dunham, no one disputes that she was born in Fort Leavenworth, and no one disputes that she was an American citizen. So far as I know, that makes her children – even those born abroad – American citizens from birth.
Naturally curious (from birth), I undertook a bit of independent legal research. Since I won’t start law school until September, and don’t have access to WestLaw or LexisNexis, I turned to my usual information repository: Wikipedia. There, I read all too much about how, yes, babies born to American citizens abroad are under most circumstances granted automatic US citizenship, but also that there are arguments over whether this qualifies as ‘natural born’ citizenship, and whether having only a single American parent is qualification enough for citizenship of any kind. I found the topic so fascinating that I’ll spare you further details.
In the course of my research, I came into frequent contact with the ‘natural born Citizen’ clause itself, and couldn’t help but notice that the controversy over the circumstance of Obama’s birth is confined to those words that precede its first comma. Meanwhile, the clause that jumped out at me is wedged between commas two and three. Take another look:
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;
Of significance is that second comma. Its inclusion, to my reading, links ‘at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution’ to the clause that immediately precedes the first comma, transforming it from what would have been mere qualification of ‘a Citizen of the United States’ into a requirement for all ‘natural born’ citizens who wish to Preside. Were ‘at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution’ truly meant to qualify, here’s how I would have punctuated the clause:
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;
But that’s not how things went down in 1787 Philadelphia.
I propose that under a truly grammatical Originalist reading of the Constitution, the birthers are correct. Indeed, their only shortcoming is small-mindedness, but not of the sort of which they are often accused. Forget Barack Obama – small potatoes; every President from Martin van Buren (b. 1782 in Kinderhook, New York) on has been constitutionally ineligible for the highest office in the land.
Donald: get on it.