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Middle Eastern terrorists have abducted the president’s daughter and shot her bodyguard dead. The veep has resigned after getting snared in an affair with a chatty paramour. The president, whose weakened mental abilities have impaired his functioning for a while now, realizes that the stress of deciding whether to start a war over his youngest child is putting him on the edge of really losing it. So, our beloved commander in chief has decided to do the only thing a reasonable dramatis persona can do — step aside, at least for a while. And, in accordance with honor and duty, he stands by while a beefy conservative Republican Southerner resigns as speaker of the House of Representatives and recites the oath of the highest office in the land. No, no. Jenna and Barbara are fine. Dick and Lynne are still faithfully snuggling in their cozy undisclosed location. Denny Hastert is still on Capitol Hill, and is still from Illinois. And George W. Bush is no more mentally impaired than he ever was. They’re all fine. The one I’m worried about is the guy with the real power — Aaron Sorkin. Because this is where Sorkin’s left us after last month’s season finale of NBC-TV’s “West Wing.” Literally left us — he announced not too long before the show that we won’t have Aaron to kick around any more. He won’t be back next season, even though the show is his creation, which he has written and produced since starting it during the Clinton administration all those years ago. If Sorkin has managed to contribute anything to society at large through the show — aside from giving Democrats the White House they know they won, that is — it has been his gift for making good-looking people with snappy dialogue look good and sound snappy even when discussing wonkish policy and legal issues. Think “Beverly Hills, 90210″ with degrees from the JFK School of Government. He has folded into this formula everything from tax policy to legislative parliamentary maneuvers to whether the Equal Rights Amendment made any sense. Even while making all the minutiae titillating, he’s always seemed to get it right. But this time it seems he didn’t. So either Sorkin’s been suffering from his own mental slowing, or else he’s left his successor with a hell of a plot twist for next season. Or both. Why? Switch to the teleprompter. Here’s President Jeb Bartlet (Martin Sheen) telling his Cabinet that he intends to step aside: “[I am] availing myself of the constitutional option offered to this office by Section 3 of the 25th Amendment, which permits through written declaration to temporarily transfer all powers to the president to the next in the constitutional line of succession.” But here’s the 25th Amendment, Section 3, in its entirety: “Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.” Got that? The amendment speaks not of the speaker as heir apparent. And the speaker of the House, whether he’s played by John Goodman (as in the show) or by Denny Hastert, is not the vice president. Aaron, hast thou forsaken us? Well, yes. And no. And yes. And no. I’ll take those in order. Yes, he got it wrong. The “he” being President Bartlet. He said the 25th Amendment says something it doesn’t say. He said it speaks to the “constitutional line of succession.” It doesn’t, at least not really. It speaks of the vice president. That’s a line of succession, to be sure, but it’s a line of one. And the one — a character who implausibly had Al Gore’s face but Bill Clinton’s zipper — doesn’t exist anymore. So Section 3 of the 25th Amendment is unusable. And the speaker, especially after he resigned, is a big fat nobody. But, no, he didn’t get it wrong. This time the “he” is Aaron Sorkin — in the guise of Will Bailey (Joshua Malina), an aide to the president. When Bailey hears the news about the kidnapping, he inexplicably blurts out (to, of all people, the press secretary), “There’s no vice president. Listen to me. There is no mechanism, none. There is no mechanism for presidential recusal.” Of course, no one listens to him. He doesn’t even listen to himself. (Later on in the show, Will agrees with other presidential advisers that it’s for the best for the president to step aside, and he even advises the speaker on some technicalities of how to step up to the Oval Office.) And there’s the rub. Sorkin can read. He’s no doubt read Section 3 of the 25th Amendment (all 62 words of it). He had the president’s character cite to Section 3 by chapter and verse. And Sorkin’s also had his Cassandra sing for us (if confusingly and fleetingly). Meaning, he’s pitched this one to get knocked out of the park. Maybe that’s Sorkin’s gift to his successor as commander in chief of Wednesday nights. Think about the potential for plot twists: The president thinks the speaker of the house is president. The speaker of the house thinks he’s the president. The country thinks that he’s the president. But he’s not the president. So nothing that he does matters, right? He signs a law, but it doesn’t become law. He declares war, but he doesn’t. He institutes martial law, but he’s not the chief marshal. When Jeb Bartlet figures this all out, he can come storming back and save the nation from an unconstitutional Republican takeover of the White House. (Sound familiar?) Liberals, rejoice! George W. Bush — um, I mean John Goodman — can go home to daddy. And things can get even better. Because what the speaker-as-president does — whatever it is that he turns out to do — in fact does matter. Let’s say that he declares war (though he indicated that he wouldn’t). Can he take back the attack? Can he unexplode the missiles? Can he raise the dead? Sorry. Or let’s say that he signs a bill — maybe a tax cut to give billions of dollars to the country’s richest. Guess what? It still becomes a law. Not because the bill has the speaker’s signature, but because it lacks President Bartlet’s signature. (Article I, Section 7, Clause 2: “If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it. …”) All that time that the “West Wing” president thinks he’s on leave, the government is actually on autopilot. For another plot device, in the world of “West Wing,” it might not be possible to simply pass new laws to take back the old ones. The reason that the speaker of the house is from a different party than the president is that, there, Congress is a different party from the president. So, if the restored Bartlet tries to ram through legislation to set things straight, it’s almost preordained that the speaker doesn’t let it get to the floor for a vote (not that it would pass even if it did). And if he gets lucky enough to have a special election written into the plot, the speaker will be none other than the man who would have been president. So there I was thinking that Sorkin had botched his Constitution, when all the while he was just setting us up to have the characters’ botched Constitution drive the show into next season. Aaron really did get the Constitution right. Right? Not exactly. It’s true, the 25th Amendment doesn’t quite cover what President Bartlet did. But that’s not the only section of the Constitution that speaks of presidential succession. Vikram Amar, who teaches at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, points to Article 2, Section 1, Clause 6. That text states, “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.” To be sure, “[t]his Clause has been affected by amendment XXV,” as a note appended to the Constitution posted on the House of Representatives Web site states). But it hasn’t quite been superseded by the 25th Amendment. So what does the earlier text allow, then? Essentially, it means that when a president declares he cannot serve for a period of time, and if the vice president cannot assume the office, it is left to Congress to decide “what Officer shall then act as President.” That’s exactly what Congress has done, through the Presidential Succession Act, according to Amar. Title 3, Section 20 of the United States Code, dating back to 1947, places the speaker of the house in line after the vice president to become the president. For “West Wing,” that means that whatever the speaker does while he’s in the Oval Office isn’t merely irreversible; it’s constitutional. Meaning that next year’s plot, if it hinges on the speaker’s actions being unconstitutional, would be itself (is there any other word for it?) unconstitutional. But … here’s the final twist. Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says that the Article II text might be valid, but that the issue is “hazy and questionable.” He continues: “If you ended up with this extreme situation you would have no one clearly in line” to be the president. Not even John Goodman. So next year’s presumptive plot might — emphasize might — in the end be OK. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the rules for governmental succession have become more important. “West Wing” isn’t even the only television show to have based a plot on them; the season finale of “24″ also revolved around how they work. Back in the real world, Ornstein helped establish a joint project of the AEI and the Brookings Institution called “The Continuity of Government Commission,” which released a report earlier this month. And other academics, including professor Amar, have also highlighted flaws in the system that need to be addressed. So we’re all familiar with the problems of succession in government. I wonder, though, whether Aaron Sorkin realizes the possible flaw he’s left in his own succession. Evan P. Schultz is associate opinion editor at Legal Times.

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