On its face, the U.S. Constitution's 20th Amendment is a largely procedural piece of legislation dealing with timelines and processes around transition of power and line of succession for newly elected officials.

But in an election year unlike any other — one in which the United States has faced numerous challenges to its democratic foundations — it is more important than ever to understand what exactly this "lame duck" amendment is, why we have it and what it protects.

In three minutes, UW Law Associate Dean for Academic Administration Liz Porter discusses the amendment's history, what it does and does not cover, and why the U.S. Supreme Court has never issued a decision pertaining to the law.


Read the Transcript

Liz Porter: I'm Liz Porter and I'm the associate dean for academic administration at UW Law.

Three-Minute Legal Tips: What requires inauguration day to be on January 20th?

LP: Actually, Inauguration Day has not always been on January 20th. It used to be that presidential inauguration happened in March, that was how the original founders of the country and the Constitutional plan did it because that's the first time that a president was inaugurated and we have begun to inaugurate our presidents in January only after the ratification of the 20th Amendment which happened in 1933.

TMLT: What precipitated the 20th Amendment?

LP: The 20th amendment is called the Lame Duck Amendment and actually it's not necessarily aimed primarily or solely, that term lame duck, at the president because what happened prior to the ratification of the 20th Amendment is that members of Congress were also elected in the November elections but Congress didn't pass its membership over also until March. And after that Congress didn't actually sit. They didn't have a new session until the following December and what that meant was members of Congress who were newly elected in November of one year wouldn't actually begin their work as legislators until 13 months later in December of the following year and, in addition to that, legislators who were not re-elected in those November elections would nevertheless serve for the short winter term until March when the turnover happened. And during that lame duck legislative session, there was a perception that legislators were no longer motivated by serving their constituents but instead would be sort of more subject to pressure. For example, for post-congressional jobs or they were just subject to more unfortunate political pressure that was anti-democratic.

TMLT: What else does the 20th Amendment state?

LP: The 20th amendment provides a little bit of advice about succession in case a president dies prior or president-elect dies prior to inauguration. And what the 20th Amendment says is that if a president-elect dies prior to January 20th the vice president-elect will become president. Just to note, however, it's not totally clear what we mean by president-elect. So, for example, we could say that President Joe Biden became president-elect after he was elected in November. And in the popular press he was then often referred to as president-elect after that time. But, it doesn't necessarily seem that that's what the 20th Amendment comprehended in using the term president-elect. It could also be that December 14th, the electoral college vote, would become the date at which a candidate was formally designated as president-elect for purposes of the 20th Amendment and that actually is what sounds reasonable to me.

TMLT: Has the Supreme Court ever issued a decision regarding the 20th Amendment?

LP: The Supreme Court has never issued a decision about the 20th Amendment. I'm not aware of any 20th Amendment-related judicial opinions at all, but it's not actually clear whether the Supreme Court

would find that it had jurisdiction to make decisions interpreting the 20th Amendment.