Constitutional Cliffhangers

Hello Volokh Conspiracy readers! I’d like to thank Eugene for this opportunity to guest blog here about my new book, Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and Their Enemies.

Today I’ll have one post with a brief introduction, and another with an excerpt/discussion from one chapter. I’ll discuss a couple more chapters tomorrow and Thursday, and conclude with some general lessons on Friday. I look forward to your comments, and I’ll try to post some responses to them too.

My book is about what I call constitutional cliffhangers, all of them of the presidential variety. I define these cliffhangers as “scenarios in which the fate of the president or presidency is in doubt as politicians, courts, and the people argue over the proper interpretation of the Constitution.” They range from the merely interesting all the way up to full-blown constitutional crises.

In the middle six chapters, I sketch out hypothetical situations in which (1) a president is criminally prosecuted; (2) a president pardons himself; (3) cabinet members try to oust an allegedly disabled president, who in turn tries to oust them; (4) the secretary of state and the Speaker of the House fight for control of the presidency after the president and vice president are killed; (5) an ex-president is impeached; and (6) a two-term president attempts to stay in power.

In each case there are legal arguments on both sides, complicated by intense politics. The politics are often decisive in cases like these, so it might seem pointless to spend too much time debating the legal niceties. I’ll address that important issue on Friday.

In the remainder of this introductory post, I’ll address a common question that topics like mine evoke: “Why worry about a bunch of crazy stuff that will never happen?”

The short answer is that crazy stuff like this happens quite often. The scenarios in my book were chosen because they haven’t happened yet, but some of them have come close. More to the point, other examples abound in American history: The Jefferson-Burr tie in the Election of 1800 is probably the first; the Harrison-Tyler “acting president” question from 1841 is probably the most significant; and the Paula Jones case is probably the most recent. The Constitution has too many wrinkles and slick spots in it for us to avoid tripping or slipping on them once in a while.

It’s worthwhile to try to identify problems before they happen, and to discuss and possibly fix them. Indeed, some of them are too obvious to ignore, yet we still manage to do so until it’s too late. Consider this passage from my introductory chapter about the lessons we can learn from our most contentious presidential election:

The whole election turned on a few hundred disputed votes in Florida. There had been ultra-close presidential elections before, and there had been ambiguous results in individual states before; it was only a matter of time before both happened at the same time. Unfortunately, no steps had been taken to prevent it.

The problem was that there were no rules for resolving a dispute like this. The quintessential American mixture of politics and litigation filled the void. The Republicans fought to defend their initial lead; the Democrats fought to open things back up and recount the votes. The Republicans controlled key posts in the state government; the Democrats won key victories in Florida state court. The Republicans took their case to Washington, D.C., where Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices declared that there was no time for recounts, handing the election to the Republicans. And so, in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes became our nineteenth president.

You might recall some similar things that happened in 2000. The underlying quandary — an electoral system in which it is easy for the margin of error to greatly exceed the margin of victory — was no secret before 1876, let alone in 2000. And yet it dangled out there unsolved, waiting to snag both elections. For the most part, it dangles still.

That’s the spirit of Constitutional Cliffhangers.

I’ll be posting again later today with a look at my favorite cliffhanger (Chapter 4 in the book), a succession crisis in which the secretary of state and the Speaker of the House wrestle, figuratively, for control of the White House.