A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Could a member of an extraterrestrial species be U.S. president?

March 8, 2002

Dear Cecil:

Suppose that one day the President of the U.S. announces that although he was born in the U.S., is older than 35, and has been a resident for more than 14 years, he is a humanoid of an extraterrestrial species, and hopes that this trifling difference will not prejudice Americans against him or his politics. I note that the relevant part of the Constitution, article II, section 1, paragraph 5, begins "No person except …"

Question: Is he disqualified from holding office on valid constitutional grounds?

Cecil replies:

So, Eugene, to ask the obvious: You don't think we've had any space aliens as president up till now?

A quick review of some constitutional authorities persuades me that the Founding Fathers failed to give any consideration whatsoever to the possibility that the U.S. electorate might one day bestow the presidency on a boyish, likable creature from another planet. (And yes, I realize that if he/she/it were born on earth — I'm seeing Marin County, although there's an argument to be made for New Jersey — he'd be terrestrial. But we're talking about a member of an extraterrestrial species.) We're thus forced to fall back on our own resources. Who or what legally qualifies as a person? Black's Law Dictionary (1999) defines a person as:

"1. A human being.

"2. An entity (such as a corporation) that is recognized by law as having the rights and duties of a human being."

You're thinking: So Microsoft, in theory, could eliminate the middleman and run the country directly! However, the law generally distinguishes between "natural persons" (the flesh and blood kind) and "artificial persons" (those created through operation of law). I'm confident that only natural persons are permitted to hold public office. However, the experts I initially consulted — you can't expect me to keep track of all these details personally — were unable to cite controlling legal authority to this effect. One fellow actually suggested the question would be determined on the basis of common sense. Come on, doc, 40 years ago common sense held that marriage was strictly for heterosexuals. You'll have to do better than that.

We return to the law books. Another brainstorm: Aren't presidents of the United States required to be citizens thereof? Indeed, the passage cited above goes on to state that no person who is not a "natural born Citizen" shall be eligible for the office. Surely natural born definitively rules out corporations, cyborgs, and those icky critters they were manufacturing in the black pits of Isengard in The Lord of the Rings. But who qualifies as a citizen? The 14th Amendment declares, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States." Wonderful, but we're still left with the question of what constitutes a person. This is a matter of no small moment in legal circles these days, since the U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, decided that an unborn fetus was not a person, paving the way for the legalization of abortion. Some legal scholars, not all of whom necessarily oppose abortion, think this was a mistake, since it puts the judiciary in the uncomfortable position of having to declare that the fetus somehow is a person when we want to prosecute somebody for causing or allowing a fetus to die under other circumstances (murder, neglect, etc.). A ticklish issue, but luckily not one we need to decide now.

Back to space aliens. Strict constructionists might reason as follows: The plain and simple meaning of "person" is a human being — that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens (to be strictly taxonomically accurate, Homo sapiens sapiens, although I suppose in our tolerant era we'd let the Neanderthals in). A member of an extraterrestrial species, however humanoid in appearance, would not be a member of H. sapiens and thus would be ineligible for the presidency, although I'm betting he could still make a good living in TV news.

That's one school of thought. Another argues: That's speciesism, which is antithetical to this nation's bedrock values! An alternative dictionary definition of person is, "a human being, esp. as distinguished from a thing or lower animal." Doesn't the latter qualification really get to the heart of it (so to speak)? The Founding Fathers' chief aim was to forestall the election of crustaceans, protozoans, and other critters lacking the wherewithal to conduct the nation's business (although a country that could elect Warren Harding has obviously set the bar pretty low). Surely the intention wasn't to disqualify some worthy sentient merely because he wasn't a carbon-based life-form.

I'm not saying it's a dispositive argument. But if the lawyers could argue for months about punch-card chad, imagine what they could do with this.

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