Could Obama Name Bill Clinton Secretary of State? What About Succession?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 8 2012 5:29 PM

Secretary Clinton II

Is Bill Clinton constitutionally eligible to be secretary of state?

President Obama applauds as Bill Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in September.
President Obama applauds as Bill Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in September.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Speculation about President Obama’s second-term Cabinet has begun. After Bill Clinton’s well-received performance at the Democratic National Convention and tireless campaigning, some sources are wondering whether he might be interested in serving as secretary of state. Is Bill Clinton constitutionally eligible for that office?

Probably. The 22nd Amendment renders Bill Clinton ineligible for election to a third term as president, but there’s nothing in U.S. law that would prevent him from serving as secretary of state. Although a minority of scholars believes that the spirit of the 22nd Amendment prohibits Clinton from serving anywhere in the presidential line of succession, it’s unlikely the Supreme Court would stand in his way.

If the president, vice president, speaker of the House, and president pro tempore of the Senate all became incapacitated, would Clinton then ascend to the presidency? That’s a more difficult question. The language of the 22nd Amendment prohibits “election” to a third term, and some legal scholars believe this means succession to a third term is perfectly constitutional. (This interpretation led some to suggest a Gore-Clinton ticket in the 2000 presidential election.) On the other hand, the Presidential Succession Act states that Cabinet members who are ineligible to serve as president—if they are too young, for example—should be skipped in the line of succession. It’s possible the Supreme Court would rule that Secretary Bill Clinton would be similarly ineligible, and the secretary of the treasury would become president.

Advertisement

There’s little legal precedent on this question because few presidents have returned to work in the federal government. William Howard Taft was appointed to the Supreme Court after leaving the White House, Andrew Johnson served in the Senate, and John Quincy Adams joined the House of Representatives. None of those offices is in the line of succession.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Michael Dorf of Cornell Law School.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 20 2014 1:50 PM Why We Shouldn’t be Too Sure About the Supposed Deal to Return the Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 2:16 PM Even When They Go to College, The Poor Sometimes Stay Poor
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 2:19 PM A Procedural Rule Could Keep Gay Marriage From Ever Reaching SCOTUS Again
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 2:39 PM Gwen Stefani Does Her Best Rihanna Impression on New Song
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 1:51 PM Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books? A Future Tense Event.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 10:23 AM Where I Was Wrong About the Royals I underestimated the value of building a team that’s just barely better than mediocre.