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An Unconstitutional Nobel

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By Ronald D. Rotunda and J. Peter Pham
Friday, October 16, 2009

People can, and undoubtedly will, argue for some time about whether President Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, though, there's a simpler and more immediate question: Does the Constitution allow him to accept the award?

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Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution, the emolument clause, clearly stipulates: "And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State."

The award of the peace prize to a sitting president is not unprecedented. But Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson received the honor for their past actions: Roosevelt's efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War, and Wilson's work in establishing the League of Nations. Obama's award is different. It is intended to affect future action. As a member of the Nobel Committee explained, the prize should encourage Obama to meet his goal of nuclear disarmament. It raises important legal questions for the second time in less than 10 months -- questions not discussed, much less adequately addressed anywhere else.

The five-member Nobel commission is elected by the Storting, the parliament of Norway. Thus the award of the peace prize is made by a body representing the legislature of a sovereign foreign state. There is no doubt that the Nobel Peace Prize is an "emolument" ("gain from employment or position," according to Webster).

An opinion of the U.S. attorney general advised, in 1902, that "a simple remembrance," even "if merely a photograph, falls under the inclusion of 'any present of any kind whatever.' " President Clinton's Office of Legal Counsel, in 1993, reaffirmed the 1902 opinion, and explained that the text of the clause does not limit "its application solely to foreign governments acting as sovereigns." This opinion went on to say that the emolument clause applies even when the foreign government acts through instrumentalities. Thus the Nobel Prize is an emolument, and a foreign one to boot.

Second, the president has indicated that he will give the prize money to charity, but that does not solve his legal problem. Giving that $1.4 million to a charity could give him a deduction that would reduce his income taxes by $500,000 -- not a nominal amount. Moreover, the money is not his to give away. It belongs to the United States: A federal statute provides that if the president accepts a "tangible or intangible present" for more than a minimal value from any foreign government, the gift "shall become the property of the United States."

This is at least the second time that Obama has run afoul of the emolument clause. On June 3, 2009, the day before he gave his speech in Cairo on relations with the Muslim world, he accepted (and even donned) the bejeweled Collar of the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, Saudi Arabia's highest honor, from the hands of King Abdullah. (President Bush was awarded the Order in January last year.)

Aside from whether a president shows questionable judgment in accepting any preferment from the House of Saud named for its anti-Semitic modern founder, there is another issue: The Collar is clearly a chivalric "order" of the Saudi monarchy conferring a rank in that system of titled royalty and nobility. It is not a mere decoration or campaign ribbon. There does not seem to be any record of congressional permission asked for, much less granted, for the president to accept this bauble. Washington, Madison and Hamilton would have clearly understood that the Abdul Aziz Order falls under the same ban they had in mind for any public officials coveting awards made under the honors system of the British monarchy.

Taking President Obama at his word that the Nobel award is "an affirmation of American leadership," Congress should allow him to accept the award. The prize money, which legally belongs to the United States, ought to be applied by Congress to some worthy cause, such as reducing the deficit.

As for the Abdul Aziz Order, Congress should withhold approval and return the chain -- until the Saudis show their support for international peace by recognizing the right of Israel to live in peace within secure borders. That would honor Alfred Nobel's desire to promote "fraternity between nations" and fulfill the intent of the Framers that congressional approval would guard against attempts by foreign governments to meddle in American politics by dangling presents, titles or any other emoluments in front of our public officials.

Ronald D. Rotunda is distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Chapman University Law School. J. Peter Pham is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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