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McCain's Birth Abroad Stirs Legal Debate

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, was born on a U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone, which was then under U.S. jurisdiction.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, was born on a U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone, which was then under U.S. jurisdiction. (By Chris Gardner -- Getty Images)

Curiously enough, there is no record of McCain's birth in the Panama Canal Zone Health Department's bound birth registers, which are publicly available at the National Archives in College Park. A search of the "Child Born Abroad" records of the U.S. consular service for August 1936 included many U.S. citizens born in the Canal Zone but did not turn up any mention of John McCain.

Possible discrepancies in the bureaucratic paperwork are of little concern to Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who looked into the case at the McCain campaign's request. Tribe examined the issue along with Theodore B. Olson, his onetime nemesis in the 2000 Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore.

Tribe said it would be "astonishing if the recordkeeping practices of Canal Zone [officials] could have any bearing on eligibility for the U.S. presidency."

The key constitutional issue is whether the Canal Zone was part of the United States at the time of McCain's birth. In a memorandum, Tribe and Olson cite a 1986 Supreme Court ruling stating that the United States "exercised sovereignty" over the 10-mile-wide area between 1904 and 1979, when it was handed back to the Panamanians. Hollander and others challenging McCain's eligibility argue that the zone was never part of the United States.

Duggin, the constitutional law scholar, said the sovereignty question is "more complex" than Olson and Tribe concede. People born in some U.S. territories, such as American Samoa, are not recognized as citizens of the United States.

According to a State Department manual, U.S. military installations abroad cannot be considered "part of the United States" and "A child born on the premises of such a facility is not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and does not acquire U.S. citizenship by reason of birth." Tribe said the manual is an "opinion" with no legal status.

There are few precedents for someone born outside the 50 states running for president, let alone becoming president. The best example the McCain camp has been able to come up with is Vice President Charles Curtis, who served under President Herbert Hoover and was born in the territory of Kansas in 1860, a year before it became a state. The 12th Amendment requires that vice presidents possess the same qualifications as presidents.

Several prominent politicians have run for the presidency without having been born in the United States, including Barry Goldwater, who was born in the territory of Arizona in 1909, three years before it became a state. Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, ran in 1968, even though he was born in Mexico. Since neither Goldwater nor Romney won the presidency, the "natural born" clause was never tested.

Duggin believes that Hollander and the other plaintiffs are likely to have a hard time establishing their own eligibility, or legal standing, to challenge McCain. She said it will be difficult for them to demonstrate that they have been "disenfranchised" because of the mere presence on the ballot of a candidate with debatable constitutional qualifications.

But she said the matter should be sorted out before the election, rather than afterward: "Imagine what would happen if the courts were to overturn an election simply based on eligibility. It would be a disaster. After what happened in 2000, people would completely lose faith in the electoral process."

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