Captain Queeg and the 25th Amendment

The Washington Post ran a fascinating article today explaining that some of the drafters of the 25th Amendment looked to The Caine Mutiny and Captain Queeg as examples of what Section Four of the amendment should not permit. There is, of course, nothing shocking about the idea that the original public meaning of a constitutional provision could be shaped by a movie or a novel. But I did not see this particular angle before. (The law and literature article about Captain Queeg and presidential disability practically writes itself.)

The beauty of the example is that Captain Queeg presents a difficult case for mutiny or removal. He was an experienced seamen who did some things well as captain, but also made some poor decisions. His behavior was odd and sometimes paranoid, but then again his officers were not terribly loyal or effective themselves. The court-martial of the second-in-command results in an acquittal, but in ambiguous circumstances (one of the witnesses lies under oath). The 25th Amendment was not meant for a case where reasonable people could disagree about whether the leader was mentally ill.

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6 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    The worst part of attempting to apply the 25th amendment to the present circumstances is that the people who disagree that the President is mentally ill don’t just think the claim questionable, but instead pretextual. Any effort to use it under these circumstances would be viewed as an extra-constitutional coup.

    Under current circumstances, (Barring a sudden stroke, or something like that.) I don’t see it going anywhere. The only people who seem to think the President disabled are the people who aren’t in a position, per the 25th amendment, to make that determination. (Yes, I’m assuming that the NYT’s “Anonymous” is a senior low level flunky, if not a figment of some reporter’s imagination.)

  2. Joe says:

    “The 25th Amendment was not meant for a case where reasonable people could disagree about whether the leader was mentally ill.”

    The text says:

    “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President. ”

    I’m unsure why the fact there might be “reasonable” disagreement with the finding means they acted illegitimately. The fact the VP and a “majority” of the relevant body is enough suggests that there very well might be some “reasonable” disagreement. This isn’t akin to a unanimous jury where reasonable doubt of but one person is enough to stop a guilty verdict.

    The amendment provides a situation where a certain quota of people have to be convinced. It should be a strong case, obviously, but the fact “reasonable” people disagree isn’t enough. People can reasonably disagree with a jury verdict. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      Go on, the rest reads,

      “Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.[5]”

      So, if he’s up to disagreeing with them, he’s back in power, and if they persist, it takes a supermajority of both chambers to remove him, a higher hurdle than impeachment.

      This is NOT a way to remove a President who is in any condition to disagree with the move, barring an extraordinary level of agreement in Congress.

      • Joe says:

        “The 25th Amendment was not meant for a case where reasonable people could disagree about whether the leader was mentally ill.”

        A minority of Congress, among whom can be quite reasonable people, can disagree and removal can still occur. A supermajority rule requires a high level of disagreement. It doesn’t mean no reasonable person can disagree.

        • Joe says:

          (A high level of AGREEMENT.)

          But, perhaps you are talking past me and making some other point.

          • Brett Bellmore says:

            Nah, my point is just that the 25th amendment is not intended or designed for situations where the supposed infirmity is significantly disputed.

            This, not avoidance of a constitutional crisis, would be why the NYT’s “Anonymous” avoided it: You don’t need a consensus that you’re right to sabotage an administration from within. You do to invoke the 25th amendment.