While coming tantalizingly close, no US Court has ever decided the definition of “natural born citizen.” The term was not explained in the debates of the Constitutional Convention, nor the state legislatures when it was ratified, nor by individual framers in their speeches, letters or papers. Where do we go for a definition–to an 18th century Swiss philosopher–to an appeal to our shared prejudices?
The US Constitution is replete with terms that it doesn’t define: citizen, impeachment, felonies, treason, bribery, bankruptcy, warrants, grand jury and attainder. These are, however, familiar terms in the common law. The Supreme Court wrote in the case of Smith v. Alabama (1888) 124 U.S. 465:
There is no common law of the United States, in the sense of a national customary law, distinct from the common law of England as adopted by the several States each for itself, applied as its local law, and subject to such alteration as may be provided by its own statutes. . . . There is, however, one clear exception to the statement that there is no national common law. The interpretation of the Constitution of the United States is necessarily influenced by the fact that its provisions are framed in the language of the English common law, and are to be read in the light of its history. Continue Reading →