Any naturalized citizen can run for any office in the land — except for President and Vice-President. They have to have been citizens at time of birth. That, at least, is how I and almost everyone reasonable reads the relevant Constitutional clause — it's not about Caesarians.
Everyone agrees that persons born in the USA are natural born citizens. Almost everyone agrees that persons born outside the US who qualify for birth citizenship pursuant to a statute are also “natural born citizens” and eligible to be President. That's certainly my view. A few people have argued that only persons born here are “natural born” citizens, and that other class of birthright citizens are not sufficiently “natural”, but I think that's a losing argument, and it hasn't gained much traction.
John McCain was famously born in the Canal Zone — not in the US. But both his parents were citizens, so that's no problem, right?
Not so fast.
From Adam Liptak's latest, A Citizen, but “Natural Born”? McCain's Eligibility to Be President Is Disputed by Professor, we learn of a serious argument against McCain's eligibility.
The analysis, by Prof. Gabriel J. Chin, focused on a 1937 law that has been largely overlooked in the debate over Mr. McCain's eligibility to be president. The law conferred citizenship on children of American parents born in the Canal Zone after 1904, and it made John McCain a citizen just before his first birthday. But the law came too late, Professor Chin argued, to make Mr. McCain a natural-born citizen.
What about citizenship by descent? There was a glitch.
At the time of Mr. McCain’s birth, the relevant law granted citizenship to any child born to an American parent “out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States.” Professor Chin said the term “limits and jurisdiction” left a crucial gap. The Canal Zone was beyond the limits of the United States but not beyond its jurisdiction, and thus the law did not apply to Mr. McCain.
Which is why the 1937 law was needed in the first place.
The Supreme Court has relied on far less pettifogging distinctions to deny the right to sue to whole classes of workers. Surely a 'strict constructionist' court would read the law this way too? (The counter-argument is the sort of purpositive reading of law that conservatives usually claim to eschew, namely that this is a crazy result that Congress couldn't have meant in the earlier law, and the '37 act was just housecleaning.)
Mr. Liptak suggests we'll never know, as (despite there having been a suit on this issue filed in New Hampshire) there is probably no one with standing to sue, a legal term that approximates the concept of direct, palpable or probable, person injury of a kind not shared equally with all citizens. Prof. Chin suggests that if McCain is elected, the Vice President-elect will have standing, but is unlikely to sue.
I think the standing argument is probably right. Even so, it would be nice to think that the issue could get into court, but not to throw McCain out of the election, which would be a travesty. As Prof. Chin rightly says, “Presidential candidates who obtained their citizenship after birth are no more likely to be disloyal than those born citizens, and the People of the United States should be allowed to elect whomever they choose.” (Insert “shortly” before “after birth” if it makes you feel better.)
No, the reason to wish this would get into court is that it would provide a strong excuse for knocking the stuffing out of the largely pernicious Insular Cases which form the basis for the argument of McCain's ineligibility. The Insular Cases are the basis for the argument — wrong in my opinion — that most of the Constitution stops at the water's edge. I believe that the Constitution applies to the officials whose offices exist under it whereever they act. I don't think non-US citizens abroad have constitutional rights like US citizens at home or abroad do, but I don't think that government officials lose the shackles of law when they cross the border. Too often — think Guantanamo — our officials act as if they do, and their lawyers try to justify it in court.