When a President Is Unable to Serve


John Feerick wrote an opinion piece in the Daily News about the 50th anniversary of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which he helped draft.

The question of what it means for the President to be disabled reaches back to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The framers envisioned that a presidential “inability” might occur, but they did not define the word or provide a way to declare its existence.

Fifty years ago tomorrow, the Constitution was amended to elaborate on the framers’ treatment of the issue. The 25th Amendment responded to presidential deaths and illnesses that exposed ambiguities and gaps in the Constitution’s original succession provision.

As we mark this momentous anniversary of the ratification of the amendment, which I helped draft, it is worth reflecting on why there was a need to change the nation’s founding document, and what we accomplished by doing so.

In the wake of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, members of Congress were shaken to action by the possibility that Kennedy could have been incapacitated by the shooting, essentially repeating the Garfield and Wilson episodes. Those situations were troubling enough, but the Cold War and the increased prominence of the United States in the world had made able presidential leadership indispensable.

The 25th Amendment was an extraordinary achievement thanks to the leadership of Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana and Rep. Emanuel Celler of New York and the thoughtful contributions of members Congress from both parties. The American Bar Association and a special conference it convened, of which I was a member, provided support in crafting the amendment and then supporting its adoption.

The amendment made clear that when the President dies, resigns or is removed, the vice president becomes President for the rest of the President’s term. And when the President is disabled, the amendment is clear that the vice president serves as acting President only for the duration of the inability.

There’s this important final detail: “Inability” remains undefined in the Constitution. The 25th Amendment states that its procedures apply when the President is “unable to discharge the powers and duties” of the office. The drafters of the amendment intended it to cover physical and mental inability, temporary or permanent, as well as events where the President is out of communication, such as kidnappings and technological failures.

But they did not give a specific definition in order to provide flexibility to the constitutional decision makers.

Read the full piece.


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