Minor v. Happersett Revisited.

[My previous report was in three parts, with the first being a rather extensive exposure of a misquote by the SCOTUS in both McCreery v. Somerville and Wong Kim Ark.  The second part exposed fraudulent propaganda from Maskell’s most recent CRS memo.  And the final part examined Minor v. Happersett in light of some of the arguments being offered against its precedent, providing new analysis of key provisions of the holding therein.  I am reprinting the section on Minor now as a separate post because it is crucial to understanding the case, and it appears to have been somewhat swallowed up by the first two parts.]


…the only time the US Supreme Court ever did define the class of persons who were POTUS eligible under Article 2 Section 1 was in Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1874), wherein it was held:

“The Constitution does not, in words, say who shall be natural-born citizens. Resort must be had elsewhere to ascertain that. At common-law, with the nomenclature of which the framers of the Constitution were familiar, it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives, or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners.” Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162, 168.

There’s a quote for you. It really exists. And it tells you exactly who are natural-born citizens; those born in the country of parents who are citizens. The words are plain-spoken and self-evident. There are two classes of persons discussed in the above quotation. Those born in the country of citizen parents were labeled by the Court as “natives or natural-born citizens”, but these were also further identified as being “distinguished from aliens or foreigners”. The distinction is crucial.

On one side are those who have no citizenship other than that of the United States… as distinguished from those on the polar opposite side who have absolutely no claim to citizenship in the United States; “These were natives, or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners.” Those who fall in between these two extremes make up a third class of persons whose citizenship status, the Court noted, was subject to doubt:

“Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of the parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first.” Id. (Emphasis added.)

Had this third class been contemplated as having any claim to being natural-born citizens, the distinction employed by the court would not make sense. The distinction was employed to more specifically identify the class of persons who were natural-born citizens under Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5. The two classes discussed are in direct polar opposition to each other. Had this distinction not been employed, it might be argued that those born in the country of one citizen parent were also natural-born. But the distinction leads to the necessary conclusion that the Court in Minor was identifying a two-citizen parent rule.

For example, a person born in the US to a British father and U.S. citizen mother would, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution (and at the time Minor v. Happersett was decided), be considered as a natural-born subject of the U.K. Whether this child would be, at his birth, a citizen under the 14th amendment, was left undecided by the Court in Minor. But let’s assume that the child was a U.S. citizen. Where does that child fit into the distinction offered by the Court in Minor? The child is not on either polar extreme, since the child was not exclusively a US citizen at birth, nor was the child exclusively a British subject at birth. He does not fit into the distinction.

By choosing two extremes – those who, at their birth, are nothing but U.S. citizens – “as distinguished from aliens or foreigners” – those who, at their birth, are in no way U.S. citizens – the Supreme Court in Minor provided the necessary criteria to properly discern their holding.

Nothing has been left open as to the Minor Court’s definition of a natural-born citizen. This is further made clear by the Court’s other – somewhat overlooked – federal citizenship holding:

“The very idea of a political community, such as a nation is, implies an association of persons for the promotion of their general welfare. Each one of the persons associated becomes a member of the nation formed by the association…

For convenience it has been found necessary to give a name to this membership. The object is to designate by a title the person and the relation he bears to the nation. For this purpose the words ‘subject,’ ‘inhabitant,’ and ‘citizen’ have been used, and the choice between them is sometimes made to depend upon the form of the government. Citizen is now more commonly employed, however, and as it has been considered better suited to the description of one living under a republican government, it was adopted by nearly all of the States upon their separation from Great Britain, and was afterwards adopted in the Articles of Confederation and in the Constitution of the United States. When used in this sense it is understood as conveying the idea of membership of a nation, and nothing more.”

Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162, 165-166 (1874). (Emphasis added.)

Therefore, when the Court uses the words, “citizen” or “citizenship”, no other meaning may be imputed other than, “membership of a nation”. But Jack Maskell believes he can overrule this specific holding of the Supreme Court by inserting the words “natural-born” where they do not appear. ”Natural-born” only pertains to a requirement for the municipal office of President. Those who are natural-born meet that qualification, but all who are citizens, natural-born, naturalized abroad, naturalized here, at birth or later in life, are members of our nation. The word citizen – according to the Supreme Court in Minor – refers to “membership of a nation, and nothing more“. It’s the “nothing more” that Maskell fails to recognize.

In Maskell’s CRS memo, he alleges that the following statement from Minor left open the issue of whether persons born of aliens could be considered as natural-born citizens:

“Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first. For the purposes of this case it is not necessary to solve these doubts. It is sufficient for everything we have now to consider that all children born of citizen parents within the jurisdiction are themselves citizens.”  Id. at 167-168. (Emphasis added.)

Reading this passage in light of the definition of “citizen” from pg. 166 of Minor’s unanimous opinion, it becomes evident that what is referred to here is membership in our nation, and nothing more. Any attempt to insert the words – “natural-born” – into this passage to imply that the court left open the issue of whether those whose citizenship was in doubt might also be eligible to be President would be in direct opposition to the Court’s very holding of the case. This expression of doubt must be limited to the political status of the person, not to their eligibility to hold a municipal office. Political status is a legal term of art which means, “membership in a nation, and nothing more”. Presidential eligibility refers to municipal status. The holding not only determined Virginia Minor’s citizenship, it directly defined “citizen”, and that definition remains the law of the land today.

First, on pgs. 165-166, the Court defined the meaning of the word “citizen”. Then, on pgs. 167-168, the court defined the class of “natural-born citizens”. The Court left open the issue of who were “citizens” under the 14th Amendment, which the Court wisely avoided by exercising judicial constraint. Instead, the Court construed Article 2 Section 1, Clause 5, the natural-born citizen clause. In doing so, they defined and closed that class to persons born in the country to parents who are citizens.

The Minor Court’s unanimous opinion and definition of natural-born citizen have never been overruled or even questioned. In fact, the very passage defining the natural-born citizen class was re-stated in Justice Gray’s opinion from Wong Kim Ark. Had he intended to take issue with that definition, or to expand it, then his opinion would certainly contain something like this:

Wong Kim Ark is a natural-born citizen eligible to be President.

But no such statement exists. It’s also important to remember at all times that the Court in Minor specifically avoided construction of the 14th Amendment, thereby defining the class of natural-born citizens and identifying Virginia Minor as a member of that class. Virginia Minor directly petitioned the Court to determine that she was a citizen under the 14th Amendment. But the Minor Court declined to construe the 14th Amendment, and thereafter set about defining the class of persons who were natural-born citizens of the United States in determining that she was a citizen.

In 1996, the US Supreme Court’s majority opinion by Justice Breyer in Ogilvie Et Al., Minors v. United States, 519 U.S. 79 (1996), stated that when the Court discusses a certain reason as an independent ground in support of their decision, then that reason is not simply dictum:

“Although we gave other reasons for our holding in Schleier as well, we explicitly labeled this reason an ‘independent’ ground in support of our decision, id., at 334. We cannot accept petitioners’ claim that it was simply a dictum.”

The Minor Court’s construction of Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5, of the United States Constitution was the independent ground by which the Court avoided construing the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause.

Therefore, such construction is precedent, not dicta, despite POTUS eligibility not being an issue. The Court determined it was necessary to define the class of natural-born citizens, and the definition is current legal precedent.

Had the Court in Wong Kim Ark identified him as a natural-born citizen, there would have been no need to construe the 14th Amendment, just as it wasn’t necessary to construe it to determine Virginia Minor’s citizenship. But Wong Kim Ark was not natural-born, and therefore the Court was required to construe the 14th Amendment to determine his citizenship status.

Again, had Justice Gray’s opinion intended to state that Ark was natural-born, there would be a sentence in Gray’s opinion stating, Wong Kim Ark is a natural-born citizen. But there isn’t. No amount of tongue twisting can insert those words where they do not exist and do not belong.

The same is true for the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Minor v. Happersett. Had the court intended to say – Some authorities go further and include as natural-born citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of the parents – then that is exactly what the US Supreme Court would have said. But they didn’t.

And the same can be said for the framers of the 14th Amendment. Had they intended to include the words “natural-born citizen” in the Amendment, then that is exactly what they would have done. But they didn’t. Any attempt to read those words into the 14th Amendment would render Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5, to be superfluous. And that goes directly against our entire body of national jurisprudence on the issue of statutory construction.

I will more thoroughly address the issue of statutory construction in the days ahead. (Since the state of Georgia will be hearing this issue on Jan. 26, 2012, I have decided to come forward with everything I have now, rather than waiting to publish my book.)

Leo Donofrio, Esq.

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