Does Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment Apply to the Presidency?

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Professors Tillman and Blackman have written a controversial piece about the current troubles in which, among other things, they reiterate their view that the Constitution’s Disqualification Clause does not bar an impeached, removed and disqualified official from the presidency because that office does not constitute an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit” within the meaning of Article I, § 3, cl. 7. See Blackman & Tillman, Can President Trump be Impeached and Removed on Grounds of Incitement (Jan. 8, 2021) (“The Senate has no power to disqualify a defendant from holding elected federal positions, such as the presidency.”) (emphasis in original).

I will not bore you by restating the reasons why I think this view is very, very wrong. You can read them ad nauseam by following the links in my most recent post on the subject.

The same issue arises, however, in regard to another constitutional provision which, as far as I recall, I have not addressed before. Specifically, section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment (an obscure provision which is enjoying its moment in the sun) provides:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial office of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

(emphasis added).

I should state at the outset that I am extremely skeptical that President Trump’s behavior, as atrocious and impeachable as it may be, constitutes “insurrection or rebellion” or other conduct covered by this provision. Assuming for the sake of argument that it is, however, the italicized language raises two questions. First, is the president “an officer of the United States” subject to the bar of section 3 if he engages in the proscribed conduct? Second, is the presidency an “office, civil or military, under the United States” which a covered officer is barred from holding?

I assume that Tillman and Blackman would say no to both questions, although I am not entirely sure. Their argument is that the meaning of “officer of the United States” and office “under the United States” as used in the original Constitution applies only to appointed, not elected, offices and therefore excludes the presidency (and vice presidency). Whether they would say that this meaning was understood by anyone as of the time the Fourteenth Amendment was drafted is less clear. As I have pointed out, the view they ascribe (based on highly ambiguous historical practice) to a few members of the founding generation seems to have vanished without a trace by 1834 at the very latest.

It is interesting nonetheless that the only example I have found anyone actually expressing the Tillman/Blackman view (prior to Professor Tillman himself) comes in the debate over section 3 in the Senate on June 13, 1866. During the debate over the draft constitutional language, the following colloquy occurred:

Mr. Johnson. But this amendment does not go far enough. I suppose the framers of the amendment thought it was necessary to provide for such an exigency. I do not see but that any one of these gentlemen may be elected President or Vice President of the United States, and why did you omit to exclude them? I do not understand them to be excluded from the privilege of holding the two highest offices in the gift of the nation. No man is to be a Senator or Representative or an elector for President or Vice President–

39 Cong. Globe 2899 (1866) (emphasis added).

Here we have a U.S. senator suggesting that the disability imposed by section 3 would not exclude anyone from the “privilege of holding the two highest offices” in the land, even though it on its face applies to “any office, civil or military, under the United States.” Admittedly, its just one man’s opinion, but to my knowledge it is closer than anyone else (pre-Tillman) has ever come to expressly endorsing the Tillman/Blackman view of “office under the United States.”

Naturally a fierce debate ensued:

Mr. Morrill. Let me call the Senator’s attention to the words “or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States.”

Mr. Johnson. Perhaps I am wrong as to the exclusion from the Presidency; no doubt I am; but I was misled by noticing the specific exclusion in the case of Senators and Representatives.

39 Cong. Globe 2899 (1866).

Ok, “oops, I was wrong” might not qualify as a fierce debate, but it is as much of a debate as you will find anywhere on this issue between 1787 and 2008 or so. No doubt if the 39th Congress had any doubt that the language flagged by Senator Johnson was ambiguous, it would have been clarified. After all, there is no chance that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to prevent former rebels from serving as presidential electors but not as the president. Of course, the same can be said of the framers of the Constitution. Clearly it could not have been intended that a president be impeached, removed from office, and disqualified from serving in any federal office other than the presidency. Similarly, it could not have been intended that presidents be able to receive foreign emoluments or titles of nobility.

The question of whether the president or vice-president is an “officer of the United States” within the meaning of section 3 is somewhat closer. As was pointed out during the same Senate debate, section 3’s language regarding the individuals whose violation of oath triggers the disability tracks the Constitution’s Oath Clause in Article VI, which requires that “all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.”

There is a plausible structural argument that the term “officer of the United States” as used in Article II refers to individuals appointed and commissioned by the president, which would exclude the vice president and the president himself. Whether or not this is correct, it does not follow that the phrase used elsewhere in the Constitution is necessarily so limited. For example, while it is true that the president’s oath is separately provided for in Article II, the vice president’s is not; therefore, interpreting Article VI’s reference to “executive . . . Officers . . . of the United States” as excluding the president and vice president would mean the nowhere in the Constitution is the vice president’s oath provided for, a result that Tillman finds a good deal more plausible that do I. And while Tillman’s view of the Oath Clause has some support from a 1974 OLC memorandum written (or at least signed) by Assistant Attorney General Antonin Scalia, as I explain here that memo’s reasoning leaves much to be desired.

It also seems unlikely that the framers of section 3 would have deliberately omitted the president and vice president from the list of officials prohibited from engaging in insurrection and rebellion, although this conclusion seems more reasonable if one assumes their focus was entirely on the immediate past rebellion rather than potential future ones. In short, the argument that the president is not an “officer of the United States” within the meaning of section 3 seems to me to be quite weak, but not as weak as the claim that he holds no “office under the United States” under section 3 or the Disqualification Clause.

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