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Law Profs Debate Whether 14th Amendment Makes Debt Ceiling Unconstitutional

Posted Jul 25, 2011 11:48 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Law professors disagree on whether the debt ceiling is unconstitutional under an obscure provision of the 14th Amendment.

On Friday, President Obama rejected the idea, the New York Times reports. “I have talked to my lawyers,” he said. “They are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.”

At issue is this provision: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

The sentence was intended to ensure the payment of Union debt after the Civil War, though it was more broadly written, the Times says. The newspaper interviewed law professors about the implications. Some said the provision does, indeed, allow Obama to ignore the debt ceiling. Others said it bars Congress from an actual default on existing debts. Some said Obama has power to act in an emergency, no matter what the 14th Amendment says.

Many raised the issue of whether the courts would be willing to decide the issue, if Obama ignored the ceiling and a suit were filed. “This is largely a political question," said Yale law professor Jack Balkin.

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