West Wing Wednesday: Top 5 constitutional moments
Welcome back for Constitution Daily’s West Wing Wednesday, where we walk and talk about everyone’s favorite now-on-Netflix political drama and the top constitutional lessons, mistakes, and moments from the show.
Today, we’re wrapping things up with a look at the top 5 constitutional moments from the show.
The West Wing staffers are initially irked at a senator who is filibustering a bill because he wants a $47 million appropriation for autism research, but when they learn that it’s because his grandson has autism, they find a way to help him. The solution lies in the Senate rules; Article I of the Constitution allows both the House and the Senate to determine their own rules of proceedings.
4. Supreme Court nominees
The show featured two different rounds of nominating Supreme Court justices. One featured an unusual choice to fill two vacancies with a very conservative and very liberal justice—one of which would become the first female chief justice of the United States.
3. The State of the Union
In the episode featuring President Bartlet’s first State of the Union address, Bartlet recites the section in Article II of the Constitution that set forth this presidential tradition. He also offers a little presidential advice to the “designated survivor”:
Other West Wing Stories
2. Presidential pardons
One of President Bartlet’s final acts as president is to pardon staffer Toby Ziegler (who was charged with leaking top-secret information), using the powers granted by Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution.
But West Wing also teaches us about the constitutional (or not) process of turkey-pardoning:
1. The 25th Amendment
The most epic constitutional West Wing moment: when President Bartlet invoked the 25th Amendment, something no real-life president has done.
Bartlet decided that he was temporarily incapacitated in his presidential duties by the kidnapping of his daughter, and so signed a letter delegating the presidency to the next in line.
But because the vice president had resigned due to a scandal, it wasn’t so simple—constitutionally and politically. Constitutionally, Bartlet wasn’t invoking only the 25th Amendment—that part of the Constitution primarily focuses on the succession from the president to the vice president and appointing a new vice president when a vacancy occurs. As this article explains, the law that really would come into play is the Presidential Succession Act; according to that law, the first in line after the president and vice president is the speaker of the House. And politically, the move meant handing over the presidency to a political opponent.
A staffer for the political opponent sums up Bartlet’s move this way:
“You don’t get it, do you? Republicans are in awe of Bartlet. He recused himself in the only way he could. In the way envisioned by the Constitution. … The whole notion of the 25th Amendment is that the institution matters more than the man. Bartlet’s decision was even more self-sacrificing because he willingly gave power to his opposition. … We try to use this to our advantage, it’ll blow up in our faces. We’d seem callous and unfeeling, in contrast to Bartlet’s extraordinary gesture of courage and patriotism.”
Holly Munson is the assistant editor of Constitution Daily. Special thanks to West Wing experts Jenna Winterle and Nora Quinn for contributing to this series.