Author Archive | Prof. Brian Kalt, guest-blogging

Constitutional Cliffhangers: Final Thoughts on Staying Out of Trouble

My final post about my book, Constitutional Cliffhangers, will deal with fixing and preventing constitutional cliffhangers.

One of my pet peeves is when an article identifies a potential constitutional problem and then concludes blithely that the best solution is just to amend the Constitution. Even passing a statute is tough. Heck, just getting Congress’s attention is hard. A few years ago, I wrote an article about a 50-square-mile swath of Idaho where (according to my theory) people can commit crimes with impunity. Orin posted something about it here and it went viral. A bestselling novel was even written about it. And yet, of the scores of members of Congress I wrote to trying to get them to close the loophole, only a couple even acknowledged my letters.

My book thus wrestles with the very real barriers to fixing the traps I identify, either before or after the nation steps in them. The final chapter of my book offers a lengthy analysis along these lines. I’m not going to say much about that in this post, other than to talk a bit about my conclusion that some cliffhangers are not really worth trying to fix in advance.

There are two kinds of cliffhangers: those in which the main problem is a bad result, and those in which the main problem is uncertainty. An example of the former is Chapter 1, where a sitting president might get prosecuted (with the attendant disruption) or might not (with the attendant injustice). The fact that, in the meantime, presidents and prosecutors go about their days unsure of the answer is much less of a problem. The chapters on self-pardons and late impeachment fit in this category as well. Legislation requires energized consensus, and there wouldn’t be one. Best, then, to just wait for an [...]

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Constitutional Cliffhangers: When Law and Politics Mix

I promised to offer today some of the “general lessons” from my new book, Constitutional Cliffhangers. I will divide them into two posts that excerpt and paraphrase the final chapter of the book. This one will deal with the way that law and politics interact when constitutional cliffhangers play out.

For the cliffhangers that would play out entirely in court (presidential prosecutions and self-pardons), one would hope that judges would base their decisions on law, not politics. When Clinton claimed he was immune from Paula Jones’s civil suit, all nine justices disagreed, including the four liberals. Similarly, when President Nixon refused to turn over the Watergate tapes, the justices — many of whom Nixon had appointed — were unanimous in ordering him to.

But the starting point for most cliffhangers is that the law is unclear. When the law is in equipoise but the politics are screamingly unbalanced, the court’s decision will be inextricably linked with its political context. Here, the example is not Clinton or Nixon, but Bush v. Gore.

The Bush v. Gore litigation was, on its face, all about the complicated legal issues; no lawyers said in court, “My client should win because he belongs to your favorite political party, your honor.” But it was evident that if Bush won the case, he would win the presidency. That political ramification overwhelmed the legal issues. Few believe that all nine justices would have voted the same way if the parties had been reversed. When politics infuse the courts like that, the moral authority of the judicial system necessarily suffers. There is an added incentive, then, to prevent constitutional cliffhangers if we think that they would play out in court in such a politicized manner.

Several of my cliffhangers also implicate the political-question doctrine, through which courts [...]

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Constitutional Cliffhangers: Responses to Some Comments

I have had a lot of fun this week blogging about my new book, Constitutional Cliffhangers. I’d like to thank Eugene again for inviting me, and to the readers and commenters, especially for their kind words. This week has been even better than my last appearance here, when Eugene unveiled Kalt’s Law of Presidential Facial Hair to the world.

This post is devoted to answering some of the more challenging comments my threads got — or more precisely, ones to which the answer is something other than “I address that at length in the book, actually.” There were about thirty where I wanted to just paraphrase long passages from the book (and I do it one time below).

arch1 asked what I meant when I referred to “fixing” presidential constitutional cliffhangers. It’s important to distinguish first between cliffhangers in which the danger is a bad result, and cliffhangers in which the danger is uncertainty.

The latter are much more perilous. The most harrowing scenarios are ones where two people are claiming control of the presidency, as in my posts on Wednesday (on the succession law) and Thursday (on presidential disability). In those cases, a “fix” would be adding certainty and clarity. In the case of the succession law, that means passing a new statute. For the disability procedure, presidents and their legal staffs need to take some simple, precautionary steps.

There’s more difficulty fixing cliffhangers in which the problem is a bad result. Take Chapter 1, on prosecuting sitting presidents. There would be some uncertainty, but the courts could resolve it quickly enough. The bigger problem would be that the presidency might be derailed by a single, unaccountable prosecutor — or, if you take the other side, the problem would be that the president would potentially get away [...]

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Constitutional Cliffhangers: Third-Term Presidents

The last chapter that I will preview from my new book, Constitutional Cliffhangers, is Chapter 6. It deals with a potential loophole in the Twenty-Second Amendment’s term limits for presidents. It’s also the only chapter that cites a commenter from the Volokh Conspiracy.

The term-limit loophole has been noted and discussed a fair amount, dating back to the first president to be constrained by the Twenty-Second Amendment (Eisenhower). There have been robust discussions in newspapers, law-review articles, and blogs. Smart people on both sides have gotten surprisingly vehement about the question.

No president has attempted to exploit the loophole, and President Clinton spoke against it. Still, in the long term, the fates of term-limit provisions around the world suggest that we should not be too complacent over the long term.

Here is the chapter’s opening:

President Frederick is three years into his second term. He remains so popular that some pundits have floated the idea of repealing the Twenty-Second Amendment and letting him run for a third term. Frederick laughs off such talk, and a national opinion poll shows that only 12 percent of voters support repeal. Still, Frederick casts a large shadow; on the eve of primary season, his Democrats have no clear front-runner for the nomination to replace him.

Then disaster strikes: a treacherous terrorist attack kills tens of thousands of Americans. The country rallies behind President Frederick as he leads a strong offensive against the terrorists and their sponsors. His approval rating shoots into the nineties. While the country is badly rattled by the attack, people feel safer with Frederick in charge.

Frederick feels pretty good being in charge too. Now, when the Twenty-Second Amendment comes up, he sounds increasingly coy. Support for repeal rises to almost 50 percent in the polls. But Republicans —

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Constitutional Cliffhangers: Mutiny!

The next chapter of Constitutional Cliffhangers I’d like to present is Chapter 3, on the presidential disability provisions in the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. This is an unusual candidate for a cliffhanger for two reasons. First, one side of the constitutional debate seems to me to be clearly wrong, with no chance of prevailing in court. Second, the “repair” here is rather easier than in other chapters, requiring no legislation.

Here’s the scenario. See how many Caine Mutiny references/analogies you can spot:

Frances Philips is halfway through her second term as president. Her management style, which was always “hands off,” has become downright lax. She skips meetings, neglects decisions that need to be made, and shows little interest in being president. Some members of her cabinet and staff worry that she is clinically depressed, but — swayed by the increased power that comes with having a figurehead for a boss — none of them does anything about it.

Then President Philips starts alternating her periods of utter inertness with bursts of aggressive and arbitrary micromanagement. At a cabinet meeting, she rants for ten minutes about the use of blue pens instead of black ones. Next, without explanation, she announces that she is killing a carefully developed policy initiative in which she had previously taken no interest.

Several cabinet secretaries become convinced that the president is unable to perform her job. They start to discuss Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which allows the vice president and a majority of the cabinet to declare the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of [her] office,” and transfer power to the vice president. Crucially, though, Vice President Merrick opposes the effort. Although he worries that President Philips’s mental condition is deteriorating, he is reluctant to lead what could be perceived as a coup.

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Constitutional Cliffhangers: Speaker v. Secretary of State

In my first post I said that my “cliffhangers” range from the merely interesting all the way up to full-blown constitutional crises. My favorite chapter in Constitutional Cliffhangers, Chapter 4, definitely qualifies as a crisis. Here is the opening:

The United States is deeply divided over the war. Everyone agreed that we needed to fight back when Ruritania attacked our bases, but after two years of intensive combat, things are not going well. Addressing the nation, President Joanna Lewis announces her intention to seek a negotiated settlement. The half of the country that agrees with her breathes a sigh of relief.

The other half boils with rage. Responding to the president, Speaker of the House Peg Wilton says, “We are losing this war — not because our cause is hopeless, but because we have a cowardly commander in chief. We should never surrender to fascist aggression.” “Coward” is a mild epithet compared to what other hawks call President Lewis.

Complicating matters is that a few weeks ago, the vice president suffered a fatal heart attack. President Lewis nominated a candidate to fill the vacancy, but the hawks in Congress have stalled the vote. They are motivated by their distaste for the nominee’s unsurprisingly dovish position on the war, but everyone notices that while the vice presidency is vacant, Speaker Wilton is next in line for the presidency (followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate, and then members of the cabinet, starting with the secretary of state).

As President Lewis arrives at a public event one morning, an assassin detonates a huge bomb, killing the president and dozens of others. In a homemade video produced before the assassination, the bomber decries “the coward Lewis” and announces his intention to kill Lewis so that the stalwart Wilton will become

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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 [...]

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