You may have long forgotten about the "natural born citizen" litigation in the 2016 presidential election, which I chronicled this spring. One can be forgiven, because, as hot as the topic was, Ted Cruz dropped out of the race, most cases disappeared, and little has been thought about the matter (much less about the even more tenuous and rare litigation surrounding Marco Rubio). My forthcoming Fordham Law Review piece chronicles the procedural paths these cases took, urging courts to exercise caution before needlessly plunging into disputes that the political process could readily solve, or areas where the state legislature failed to give them express jurisdiction.
Procedure took center stage in Vermont.
The plaintiff, H. Brooke Paige, was one of the first to file a claim challenging Messrs. Cruz's and Rubio's status as "natural born citizens." Mr. Paige filed pro se and sued both candidates and the state of Vermont. The case was dismissed. Mr. Paige appealed, again pro se. And the Vermont Supreme Court scheduled 30 minutes of oral argument for November 30, 2016. Messrs. Cruz and Rubio waived the opportunity to appear at oral argument. The oral argument has been uploaded.
The Vermont Supreme Court did care about procedural matters and asked Mr. Paige almost exclusively about those procedural points. First, as neither Messrs. Cruz nor Rubio were on the general election ballot, one justice wondered whether the dispute was moot--but Mr. Paige emphasized they were on the primary ballot. (Later analogies to abortion mootness exceptions arose.)
Another justice asked that the Constitution has a requirement as to who can serve as president; but does that extend the same as to who can run for president? Mr. Paige identified them as the same standard.
As to standing, Mr. Paige claimed he sought ballot access in Vermont.
The government opened with a mootness claim, which the Court challenged, but the government answered that while mootness could be an issue in election cases, it was not a problem in this case, where the plaintiff was responsible for many of the delays.
The government then noted the speculative future of the claim and the breadth of citizenship claims that might need to be raised. When the court later noted that its previous mootness case included the fact that Barack Obama was ineligible for another election, the government tried to raise the greater speculative nature of the political process. But the court pressed back that "capable of repetition yet evading review" inherently speculate about the future.
The court also mused that this exception often refers to the plaintiff's injury, as in the case with abortion cases; but, the court noted, if he has standing, what are the odds the plaintiff would face an election against someone born to foreign-born parents? That, the court said, might be a different case, as it seemed quite likely Mr. Paige would run again and face someone in that citizenship posture. But, another justice pressed back that it seemed like an advisory opinion, as it would be conditioned on "if" Mr. Rubio or someone else ran for office.
The court then asked about standing--a statute says that an election may be contested by any voter in the process. The government described the standing as something ministerial, such as the conduct of the election itself; or to matters like voter intimidation. But those are about the validity of the election, the government said, and the statute does not extend to challenges about qualifications.
The government moved back to the questions of Mr. Paige as a candidate challenging Messrs. Cruz and Rubio and argued that he was not truly a competitor in the election, such that he did not have standing.
The court started to worry about competitor standing--suppose Mr. Obama ran for governor in Vermont as a resident of Illinois? The government conceded that his general election opponent might have standing in that case.
All in all, the court muddled through a series of standing, mootness, and statutory issues, with virtually no time spent on the merits. It's unlikely we'll see any surprises... but only time will tell.