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Acting Cabinet Secretaries and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment

The Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution contains a mechanism that enables the Vice President, with the support of a majority of the Cabinet, to temporarily relieve the President of the powers and duties of the Presidency. The provision has never been invoked, but was actively discussed by multiple Cabinet Secretaries in response to President Trump’s actions on January 6, 2021. News reports indicate that at least two Cabinet Secretaries—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin—tabled these discussions in part due to uncertainties about how to operationalize the Amendment. Specifically, the Secretaries were concerned that the text of the Amendment did not specify whether Acting Cabinet Secretaries (of which there were three at the time) should be included in the vote. This Article considers that question in light of both the common
law and Supreme Court of the United States precedent, concluding that Acting Secretaries should indeed be counted. However, the Article also highlights the political risks caused by the text’s ambiguity and proposes a legislative solution to sidestep the issue.

James A. Heilpern *

* Senior Fellow, Brigham Young University, J. Reuben Clark School of Law.