UC Law Constitutional Quarterly


Most people can state who the first lady is, but no one can clearly explain what the first lady is. This silence, which stretches across all three branches of government, speaks volumes and leaves the first lady’s official constitutional status as an open question. Most discussions of this matter arose during the Clinton presidency in the context of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s role in her husband’s administration. The few legal academics who touched on the topic then have not revisited it despite the changing political and social landscape. This paper explores how the evolution of first ladies has made the legal ambiguities in their status increasingly at odds with the expectations and work of the women who fill the role. Part I briefly discusses how the first lady’s role in American life and politics became increasingly prominent. Part II analyzes the lone statutory text governing the First Lady. Part II also addresses the few judicial and executive branch writings addressing the first ladyship as a federal job. Part III builds on this and argues that the First Lady qualifies as a federal officer both by definition and by function, but formal analysis excludes her from such status. Part IV notes assorted consequences of this ambiguous status but acknowledges the potential benefits these undefined limits carry with them. The paper concludes that, for all the constitutional complexities created by the First Lady’s unofficial status, rectifying that status would prove equally fraught.