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Ask Civics 101: What is the 25th Amendment?

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Sara Plourde | NHPR

Today we're answering a question about one way a President can be legally removed from office. There's impeachment... and then there's the 25th amendment. What is the 25th amendment? And how does it work?

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The 25th amendment to the Constitution lays out the transition of power if a President is unfit or unable to serve. It also outlines the process for selecting a new Vice President in the case of a vacancy.

The 25th amendment was enacted after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, officially passing Presidential power to the Vice President, a power the Vice President did not necessarily have until this amendment.

When President William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841, for instance, no one was sure if Vice President John Tyler would become President, acting President, or stay as Vice President (Tyler took matters into his own hands and had a judge administer the oath of office). While most people believed that in the case of a Presidential death, the Vice President would presumably take over, it was less clear what should happen if the President became incapacitated, unfit, or disabled.

The 25th amendment states that the Vice President becomes President in the event that the President resigns, dies, or is unable or unfit to carry out the duties of the office. It includes provisions for when the President agrees that he is unfit, such as during major surgery, and when he does not. The amendment was written intentionally broad to cover a range of circumstances.

Section 4 provides the process for removing an unfit President. If the Vice President and the majority of the Cabinet have determined the President is unable to do the job, they send a letter to the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader stating just that. At that point, the Vice President immediately becomes President. If the President contests the finding against him, Congress can order the President’s removal by a two-thirds majority vote in each house. The Vice President remains President until the next election.

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To date, the 25th amendment has never been used to remove a President. But it has been used to fill a vacancy in the Vice presidency. Section 2 of the amendment allows the President to nominate a new Vice President, subject to confirmation by Congress. This happened in 1973 when Spiro Agnew resigned and President Richard Nixon nominated and Congress confirmed Gerald Ford as Vice President, and again in 1974 when Ford became President after Nixon resigned. Ford nominated and Congress confirmed Nelson Rockefeller for Vice President.

Erika Janik fell into radio after volunteering at Wisconsin Public Radio to screen listener calls. She co-founded and was the executive producer of “Wisconsin Life” on Wisconsin Public Radio for seven years. Now she spins all the podcast plates for Outside/In and Civics 101.

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