Nobel award to Obama required lengthy U.S. Constitution check

April 16, 2010

When President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last October it caught most by surprise and sent his lawyers scurrying to quietly make sure that the president could receive the prestigious award without running afoul with the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

NOBEL-OBAMA/A provision in the Constitution, known as the Emoluments Clause, bars the receipt of any present, emolument, office or title of any kind from a “King, Prince or foreign State”.  When the Nobel prize was established more than a century ago, Alfred Nobel’s will specified that the recipient of the peace award was to be chosen by a committee of five people elected by the Norwegian parliament known as the Storting.

However, Justice Department lawyers told the White House in a 13-page legal memorandum — sent to the White House counsel last December and released late Thursday — that the U.S. Constitution and federal law did not bar Obama from receiving the prize.

The memo went through various legal arguments, such as whether congressional approval was needed — no was the answer — and the level of involvement by the Norwegian government in the selection process. The lawyers determined that the Storting had “no meaningful role” in selecting the prize recipients or funding the $1.4 million award.

Plus, the Justice Department lawyers added to their reasoning past precedent — noting that two previous sitting presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) had won the Peace Prize as well as a sitting vice president, Secretary of State, and a U.S. Senator.

It applied similar reasoning to determine that Obama could accept the award under a federal law that limited circumstances under which he could receive certain gifts and decorations.

Always good to check.

- Photo credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque (Obama shows the Nobel medal and award after accepting the Peace Prize in December.)

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