An Arizona bill that would require presidential candidates to prove their U.S. citizenship before they can appear on the state's ballot has rekindled a debate about the qualifications for running for the nation's highest political office.
The U.S. Constitution requires that presidential candidates be natural-born U.S. citizens, at least 35 years old and be a resident of the United States for at least 14 years.
However, the Founding Fathers didn't elaborate on "natural-born citizen," so the term has been left open to interpretation.
The U.S. Supreme Court also has never defined the phrase, said Gabriel J. Chin, a University of Arizona law professor who is an expert in citizenship and immigration law. "We have never been in a situation where we had somebody who there was a serious question about," he said.
Chin said the term was modeled after the term "natural-born subject" from British law, which applies to a person born in the land of a monarchy. The term appears as "natural-born citizen" in the U.S. Constitution to reflect a different form of government.
"It's hard to translate that into the concept of a republic," he said.
Chin said he and other legal scholars believe, for instance, that a person born in another country to American parents is eligible to run for president.
But not everyone agrees. And the issue becomes even more controversial when other scenarios are involved, like when one or both parents of a potential candidate are not legal U.S. citizens. Arizona's "birther" bill originally called for information on the citizenship of a candidate's parents, but that provision was removed.
In the case of U.S. Sen. John McCain, questions about his eligibility to run for president arose in 2008 because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone to U.S. citizens while his father was stationed there while serving in the military.
While the zone was under U.S. jurisdiction, it wasn't considered a U.S. territory in the same way Arizona was once a U.S. territory. At the time, children born there to American citizens weren't considered U.S. Citizens, Chin said.
But in 1937 _ a year after McCain was born _ Congress passed a law to retroactively grant citizenship to people born in the canal zone, because there was no doubt about whether they were citizens, Chin said.
Courts have thrown out claims arguing that McCain and President Barack Obama are not natural-born citizens.