By: Gabriel Wright
With the 2016 presidential election only a few months away, the political atmosphere is ablaze with talk about the various candidates representing each side of the political spectrum. And while it is never easy to get a picture of a candidate’s true character or know what they really think, this year’s race is more complicated for voters simply because there are so many candidates running.
Currently, there are four Democrats and a whopping 12 Republicans all fighting for the title of President of the United States. So how do these candidates separate themselves from the field? Some rely on their dedication to key issues—like poverty and the legalization of marijuana—while others have repeatedly made highly controversial statements to garner the media’s attention, essentially keeping them in the limelight.
One candidate who has seemingly perfected this approach is Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best,” stated Trump in June 2015. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people.”
While this statement left little doubt about Trump’s stance on immigration, he solidified his position when he revealed his immigration policy proposal. Included in his plan was a call to end birthright citizenship, which is the idea—guaranteed by the 14th amendment—that people who are born on American soil are automatically American citizens. This part of the Constitution was meant to ensure that freed slaves were considered American citizens.
However, now that slavery has ended, this type of scheme could mean that children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents would no longer be considered Americans, and that Trump could kick these kids and their parents out of the country for being here illegally.
This proposal becomes even more troubling when you think about it in a broader sense: if Trump is elected president and gets rid of part of the 14th amendment, then he could also do away with the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.
But he cannot do that, can he? Well, from a constitutional perspective: yes and no.
Trump’s long-shot odds
To understand what Donald Trump could and could not do if he were elected president, you must first understand how the U.S. government is structured. At its core, our government is set up to prevent any one branch—the president, Congress, or the courts—from holding all the power. So, the short answer to the question is “no,” Trump cannot become president and then single-handedly throw out the parts of the Constitution he does not like.
But that is not the whole story, though. In fact, there are two ways he could make the proposed changes, but they would require a level of cooperation among government officials that is essentially non-existent in our two-party political system.
The first method lies in the hands of the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court of the United States. Donald Trump would need to convince the Supreme Court to overturn the 1898 case that established the rule that the government could not deny citizenship to anyone born in the United States.
Unlike the trial courts you typically see on TV where a single judge presides over a case, the Supreme Court of the United States has nine judges, called Justices, who hear a limited number of cases each year. Once these Justices are chosen to serve on the Court, they can stay on the Court as long as they want until they decide to retire. These life tenures ensure that the Justices do not decide cases in a certain way simply because they are afraid they will not be re-elected or that someone might fire them. It is this very independence that makes the Supreme Court hard to influence, so it is unlikely Donald Trump’s proposal would succeed using this method.
Trump’s second option would be to change, or amend, the Constitution itself. This is an extremely rare occurrence, though. So rare, in fact, that it has only happened 27 times in the course of American history, and the first 10 all happened at once with the Bill of Rights, otherwise known as the first 10 amendments.
Aside from being rare, it is extremely difficult to add amendments to the Constitution. The process requires either 1) two-thirds approval in both houses of Congress, followed by ratification of three-quarters of the states, or 2) the development of amendments at a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of the states and then ratified by three-quarters. The second method has never been used to amend the Constitution.
To get his proposal added to the Constitution, Republican Trump would need to convince 13 Democratic senators and 44 Democratic representatives to join his cause, and he would need to get the two-thirds approval needed by both the House and the Senate. If Donald Trump were somehow able to get Democrats to join his cause, the amendment would also have to be ratified, through either state legislatures or ratifying conventions in the states.
Thus, while Donald Trump could technically influence other branches of government to join his cause and enact his proposal, this outcome is so unlikely that is nearly impossible.
Now that you can rest assured knowing your constitutional rights will not be flushed down the drain with the inauguration of the next president, we want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on Donald Trump and the other presidential candidates? Which issues are most important to you?