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The Straight Dope


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Suppose that one day the president of the U.S. announces that although he was born in the U.S., is older than 35, and has been a resident for more than 14 years, he is a humanoid of an extraterrestrial species and hopes that this trifling difference will not prejudice Americans against him or his politics. I note that the relevant part of the Constitution, article II, section 1, paragraph 5, begins "No person except..."

Question: Is he disqualified from holding office on valid constitutional grounds?

--Eugene Blahut, Chicago

So, Eugene. You're saying you don't think we've had any space aliens as president? Ronald Reagan, now. Didn't you sometimes have the feeling, this guy is channeling the Arcturans?

A quick review of some constitutional authorities persuades me that the founding fathers failed to give any consideration whatsoever to the possibility that the U.S. electorate might one day bestow the presidency on a boyish, likable creature from another planet. (And yes, I realize that if he/she/it were born on earth--I'm seeing Marin County, although there's an argument to be made for New Jersey--he'd be terrestrial. But we're talking about a member of an extraterrestrial species.) We're therefore forced to fall back on our own resources. Who or what legally qualifies as a person? Black's Law Dictionary (1999) defines a person as:

"1. A human being.

"2. An entity (such as a corporation) that is recognized by law as having the rights and duties of a human being."

You're thinking: So Microsoft, in theory, could eliminate the middleman and run the country directly! However, the law generally distinguishes between "natural persons" (the flesh and blood kind) and "artificial persons" (those created through operation of law). I'm confident that only the natural kind are permitted to hold public office. However, the experts I initially consulted--you can't expect me to keep track of all these details personally--were unable to cite controlling legal authority to this effect. One fellow actually suggested the question would be determined on the basis of common sense. Come on, doc, 40 years ago common sense held that marriage was meant strictly for heterosexuals. You'll have to do better than that.

We return to the law books. Another brainstorm: Aren't presidents of the United States required to be citizens thereof? Indeed, the passage cited above goes on to state that no person who is not a "natural born Citizen" shall be eligible for the office. Surely natural born definitively rules out corporations, cyborgs, and those icky critters they were manufacturing in the black pits of Isengard in The Lord of the Rings. But who qualifies as a citizen? The 14th Amendment declares, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States." Wonderful, but we're still left with the question of what constitutes a person.

Strict constructionists at this point might reason as follows: The plain and simple meaning of person is a human being--that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens (to be strictly taxonomically accurate, Homo sapiens sapiens, although I suppose in our tolerant era we'd let the Neanderthals in). A member of an extraterrestrial species, however humanoid in appearance, would not be a member of H. sapiens and thus would be ineligible for the presidency, although I'm betting he could still make a good living in TV news.

That's one school of thought. Another argues: That's speciesism, which is antithetical to this nation's bedrock values! An alternative dictionary definition of person is "a human being, esp. as distinguished from a thing or lower animal." Doesn't the latter qualification really get to the heart of it (so to speak)? The Founding Fathers' chief aim was to forestall the election of crustaceans, protozoans, and other critters lacking the wherewithal to conduct the nation's business (although a country that could elect Warren Harding has obviously set the bar pretty low). Surely the intention wasn't to disqualify some worthy sentient being merely because he wasn't a carbon-based life-form.

I'm not saying it's an entirely dispositive argument. But if the lawyers could argue for months about punch-card chads, imagine what they could do with this.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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