What Is a Natural Born Citizen?

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Shannon Sabo

In order to be elected President of the United States, a candidate must have natural-born citizen status. The 2016 Presidential election has thus far been quite contentious. As the primaries loom, the issue of eligibility to hold office as U.S. President has been raised.

What is a natural born citizen, exactly? A quick search for this phrase in HeinOnline reveals this article from the Harvard Law Review Forum, which defines natural born citizen as "a citizen from birth with no need to go through naturalization proceedings." The article further states that persons born abroad, who are citizens from birth based on the citizenship of a parent, are included among natural born citizens.

Though this definition and its implications for potential presidential candidates seems clear, Republican candidate Donald Trump has questioned his competitor Ted Cruz's eligibility to run for office based upon the fact that Cruz was born in Canada. This article in the Washington Post appears to support Trump's claim, declaring natural born citizens to be "such as are born within the dominions of the crown of England" while aliens are "such as are born out of it." While this definition comes from English common law, the U.S. Supreme Court has previously stated that we must use this as the concept's definition.  The article also states that, while there is no question Ted Cruz is a U.S. citizen, he was born in Canada and is therefore not natural-born.

These articles, both from reputable online sources, directly contradict one another. CNN reports that a lawsuit has already been filed in Texas early in January over whether or not Cruz is eligible to run for President. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe stated that, while "Cruz is generally accepted to be a natural-born citizen, no court has definitively ruled on the question." He called the matter "a serious cloud."

Laurence Tribe (via the Guardian): 

Under "the kind of judge Cruz says he admires and would appoint to the supreme court – an ‘originalist’ who claims to be bound by the historical meaning of the constitution’s terms at the time of their adoption – Cruz wouldn’t be eligible because the legal principles that prevailed in the 1780s and 90s required that someone be born on US soil to be a ‘natural born’ citizen ... On the other hand, to the kind of judge that I admire and Cruz abhors – a ‘living constitutionalist’ who believes that the constitution’s meaning evolves with the needs of the time – Cruz would ironically be eligible because it no longer makes sense to be bound by so narrow and strict a definition.”

Laurence Tribe is ranked 21st by HeinOnline's ScholarCheck tool, which ranks authors based upon the number of times their articles have been cited and accessed. His work has been cited by nearly 6,500 articles and 270 cases.

Ted Cruz is not the only candidate who has faced a birther challenge. Fellow Republican candidate Marco Rubio is facing similar litigation in Florida. Senator John McCain, who was born on a U.S. military base in Panama, was challenged by the birther movement, as was Mitt Romney's father, George, who was born in Mexico to two U.S. citizens.

In addition to hundreds of law review articles that pertain to this topic, HeinOnline contains the United States Constitution itself. A search of only U.S. Constitutional documents produces these results, which include this reference to "natural born citizen" in its original context:

While most sources agree it's likely to be determined that Ted Cruz is eligible to run, it will be interesting to see if anything is done to clarify eligibility criteria. We will continue to actively follow all candidates and their campaigns to become the next U.S. President. For help searching or navigating in HeinOnline, visit our help page, contact our support team at (800) 277-6995, by email, or chat with us!