John Feerick, the former dean at Fordham Law.

 

The 25th Amendment is having a moment.

The often overlooked Constitutional provision—which lays out a presidential succession plan should the commander in chief resign, be incapacitated, or deemed incapable of fulfilling their duties—has popped up of late in conversations (primarily among liberals, though some conservatives have also floated the idea) of how President Donald Trump could be stripped of power.

John Feerick, a law professor and former dean of Fordham University School of Law, is among the chief architects of the 25th Amendment, which passed in 1967, in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The 50-year-old amendment enables the removal of the president should the vice president and a majority of the cabinet agree that the nation’s top elected official cannot fulfill his or her duties, and at least two-thirds of Congress confirm that decision. (Last month conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that Trump’s childlike conduct merited removal though the 25th Amendment.)

In August, Feerick will receive the American Bar Association Medal, the bar’s highest honor, in recognition of his work helping to draft the 25th Amendment and myriad contributions to legal education and the legal profession. We spoke with Feerick on Tuesday about the origins of the amendment, whether he thinks it will be invoked during the Trump presidency, and what he makes of today’s legal education climate. His answers have been edited for length.

Congratulations on the ABA Medal. What was your reaction when you learned of that decision?

I was humbled, astonished and overwhelmed by it. I was asked to come to a meeting with [ABA President] Linda Klein and the dean of our law school. I thought it had something to do with helping out with the annual meeting this summer. Instead, it was set up to let me know I had been selected for this honor. I really couldn’t get my hands around it. I certainly did not feel worthy of it.

Let’s talk about the 25th Amendment. It’s 50 years old this year and it’s getting a lot of buzz right now. How did you get involved in drafting it?

When I graduated from law school in 1961, I had read a brief article on the problem of presidential inability. Almost concurrently with that, a college classmate said he had a folder of material on the subject from the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower had several disabilities. He gave me that folder.

I was curious why the problem had not been solved. I decided to look into the problem, and I became totally obsessed and absorbed by it—so much so that when I was dating my wife the one subject I’d keep talking about was how to handle the disability of a president. I spent two-and-a-half years studying the problem, looking at state government and foreign government constitutions to see how they handle succession. I put it all together in a law review article, when I was an associate at a law firm.

How did it go from a law review article to a constitutional amendment?

The opportunity to participate came in part because the weekend after the assassination of [Kennedy] my article was the focus of a New York Times editorial page article.

I was then invited by the American Bar Association to join 11 other people in a conference on presidential succession. Before I knew it, I had a lot of requests to write about it, to chair the Young Lawyers Division of the ABA, to promote the approval of the amendment in Congress and ratification by the states. I was drawn on by members of Congress and committee staff to assist with the drafting of an amendment on the subject.

Would the amendment have gone forward had Kennedy not been assassinated?

It’s hard to say. The assassination of President Kennedy was so dramatic and so tragic that there was a lot of attention given to inability. Would there have been a constitutional amendment had that not happened? I don’t know, but that clearly propelled the movement to change the Constitution and deal with these subjects. In the final analysis, if I had to speculate, it probably wouldn’t have happened.

Are you getting a lot of questions now about the 25th Amendment?

I’ve received a lot of questions from media and people writing on the subject, trying to get more understanding of the amendment and its history. There has been some confusion out there with respect to the amendment.

Do you have any take on the likelihood of the amendment coming into play during the Trump presidency?

That’s not a subject that I feel qualified to deal with, really. I have a lot of history I can provide on the amendment, but I don’t presume to put myself in the position of vice president or the cabinet, or anyone who else might be faced with a question about the amendment. I don’t rush to judgment on things like that.

You were law dean at Fordham for 20 years, from 1982 to 2002. How was the job different then?

I see a lot of similarities. For example, we have a great dean at Fordham Law School today who spends an enormous amount of time communicating with graduates around the world to build support. He spends a tremendous amount of time promoting legal services. A lot of the initiatives in those areas at the school are reminiscent for me of the decades when I served as dean.

Where there is a different kind of challenge is that applications have gone down. That has been an enormous challenge over the past nearly 10 years. How do you deal with that? You look at newer strategies. I’ve noticed that schools have increased their degree programs. They have experimented with two-year law school, and two-and-a-half-year law school. There’s a lot more looking at the curriculum to see what keeps you strong. When I served as dean, the idea of law school being three years was taken as a given.

When you look back on your legal career, of what are you most proud?

I’m certainly very proud to have been involved in the crafting of an amendment that’s in the United States Constitution. I think that’s something very special. But I’ve always made it a part of my life to serve others, and to be there for lawyers in transition, law students who are seeking employment, and senior lawyers who are trying to cope with change in their life. When I put all that quiet activity together, that’s probably the most important thing my life stands for.