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McCain's Birth Abroad Stirs Legal Debate
His Eligibility for Presidency Is Questioned

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

The Senate has unanimously declared John McCain a natural-born citizen, eligible to be president of the United States.

That is the good news for the presumptive Republican nominee, who was born nearly 72 years ago in a military hospital in the Panama Canal Zone, then under U.S. jurisdiction. The bad news is that the nonbinding Senate resolution passed Wednesday night is simply an opinion that has little bearing on an arcane constitutional debate that has preoccupied legal scholars for many weeks.

Article II of the Constitution states that "no person except a natural born citizen . . . shall be eligible to the office of president." The problem is that the Founding Fathers never defined exactly what they meant by "natural born citizen," and the matter has never been fully tested in court. At least three pending cases are challenging McCain's right to be sworn in as president.

Jurists on both sides of the political divide, consulted by the McCain campaign, insist that the issue is clear-cut. They argue that McCain is a natural-born citizen because the United States held sovereignty over the Panama Canal Zone at the time of his birth, on Aug. 29, 1936; because he was born on a U.S. military base; and because his parents were U.S. citizens.

But Sarah H. Duggin, an associate law professor at Catholic University who has studied the "natural born" issue in detail, said the question is "not so simple." While she said McCain would probably prevail in a determined legal challenge to his eligibility to be president, she added that the matter can be fully resolved only by a constitutional amendment or a Supreme Court decision.

"The Constitution is ambiguous," Duggin said. "The McCain side has some really good arguments, but ultimately there has never been any real resolution of this issue. Congress cannot legislatively change the meaning of the Constitution."

Senators sympathetic to McCain's position, including Democrats Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), dropped an earlier attempt to quell the eligibility controversy with legislation. McCaskill acknowledged in an interview that there is "no way" to completely resolve the question short of a constitutional amendment, a cumbersome process which could not be concluded before November.

She described the nonbinding resolution, which she sponsored, as "the quickest, clearest and most efficient" way for the Senate to send a message to the courts that McCain has the right to be president.

One person who disagrees with that premise is New Hampshire resident Fred Hollander, who has filed a suit in U.S. District Court claiming that the Republican candidate is "not a natural born citizen." In an attempt to prove his argument, the 49-year-old computer programmer filed a subpoena last month seeking McCain's birth certificate.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees citizenship services, declined to hand over copies of the document, saying the subpoena was improperly served.

In his autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain writes that he was born "in the Canal Zone" at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Coco Solo, which was under the command of his grandfather, John S. McCain Sr. The senator's father, John S. McCain Jr., was an executive officer on a submarine, also based in Coco Solo. His mother, Roberta McCain, now 96, has vivid memories of lying in bed listening to raucous celebrations of her son's birth from the nearby officers' club.

The birth was announced two days later in the English-language Panamanian American newspaper. A senior official of the McCain campaign showed a reporter a copy of the senator's birth certificate issued by Canal Zone health authorities, recording his birth in the Coco Solo "family hospital."

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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