Presidential Powers of Attorney: A Capital Idea
“Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.”
In December of 1963, as America mourned the assignation of John F. Kennedy, Birch Bayh , the young United States Senator from Terre Haute, Indiana, introduced an amendment to the Constitution aimed at curing its dangerously vague language on vice-presidential succession and presidential disability. One of the many contingencies it aimed to address was, what happens if the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office?
With the recent hospitalization of the current President after his diagnosis of Covid-19, much of the water cooler buzz, the nightly news, and social media was atwitter with questions surrounding the 25th and whether it would be evoked.
Such declarations are rare, but not uncommon. Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush each transferred power using 25 during pre-planned surgeries. But while we do not know, as of yet, if the White House counsel drafted language affording the transfer of power to the Vice-President (albeit temporarily) were the President’s health to take a turn, it did get us thinking that such a document could be akin to the most important Power of Attorney in the world.
In Ontario, the subject of a living will often comes up in similar circumstances. But the term “living will” is not used in any formal way. We have written about living wills here in the past. A more common term is advance directive: a document that clearly outlines your treatment and personal care wishes.
But whether you call it a living will or advance directive, they are not the same as a Power of Attorney (POA): a legal document in which you name a specific person to make decisions on your behalf. While an advance directive can form part of your POA for personal care, so your attorney is aware of your wishes, it does not carry the same weight with the court.
Finally, while we may not know whether the president executed a document under the 25th Amendment or if one was even drafted, it is a good reminder that even if our own illness or temporary absence does not pose a national security risk, outlining our wishes about care is always a capital idea.
Thanks for reading.
Ian Hull and Daniel Enright