Superman’s Citizenship

So it’s come out that Superman will apparently be renouncing his United States citizenship in an upcoming Action Comics. This has generated a certain amount of buzz and sent people to this post from back in December.

But renunciation is a slightly different question, and one worth talking about. Turns out that you can, in fact, renounce your citizenship. 8 U.S.C. § 1481 governs the voluntary renunciation of citizenship through a variety of ways, e.g. taking up arms with a foreign government or committing treason, but also by simply making a statement to that effect to an appropriate diplomatic officer. It’s not nearly as hard as it might be. The State Department actually has a page on it.

But Superman renouncing his citizenship is a little more complicated than you or I doing so. At one point, he was an honorary citizen of every country in the world–which would seem to alleviate a lot of his justification for doing so now–but that may have been pre-Crisis, so its current canonicity is open to question. More than that though, what effect, if any, does Superman’s renunciation have on Clark Kent’s citizenship? Now we start to run into some of the problems of maintaining a dual and/or secret identity. We’ve talked about this at some length here and here. Kent is just a regular guy as far as anybody can tell. Not only does it seem a bit hypocritical to renounce citizenship with the persona that isn’t actually tied to a permanent address while maintaining one’s mundane existence, but flipping back and forth between the two could be problematic, not only logistically, but in a kind of “now you see it, now you don’t” kind of thing with legal rights, duties, and privileges.

All in all, it should be fun to see where DC intends to go with this in and of itself, but it’ll be even more fun to see if they get the legal aspects right.

Time to hit up your local comic book store…

40 Responses to Superman’s Citizenship

  1. So, let’s assume for a moment that Superman’s renunciation is determined in-the-end to affect any and all secret identities he might have. Is Clark Kent, if accused of “being Superman” and thus people want to deny him US Citizen rights, legally entitled to be treated like a US Citizen would be until it can be proven he IS Superman in a court of law?

    In a more mundane way, if a (allegedly former) US Citizen denies that he ever renounced his citizenship, and somebody wishes to prove that he DID do so, is that alleged US Citizen entitled to be treated like a US Citizen, or does the mere accusation of having renounced one’s Citizenship enable the legal system to bypass due process that would normally be due only to a US Citizen?

    • There isn’t a lot of due process due only to a US citizen. With rare exceptions due process and other constitutional rights apply to anybody within US jurisdiction. The Constitution talks about “persons” in the due process clauses, not citizens.

      A classic example of this is US v. Tiede, 86 F.R.D. 227 (D. Berlin 1979). The Tiede case decided the fate of an East German man (Hans Tiede) who had hijacked a Polish airliner and defected to West Berlin. Since the Americans were still technically an occupying force, the West Germans gave America jurisdiction over the case in order to avoid angering East Germany and the Soviet Union, since West Germany had a policy of supporting defectors. The American judge, Herbert Stern, decided that the Constitution required due process, including a jury trial (Germany had abolished jury trials in 1924). Tiede was convicted of one charge, and Judge Stern famously sentenced him only to time served because he was concerned that Tiede would not receive required constitutional protections. So there you have due process applying to an East German citizen in a court convened in West Germany.

  2. Wow, being a citizen of every country in the world would be rather crappy when it came to taxes. “I owe a total of $10,000,000 in taxes to 195 different countries, on $100,000 of income?!?”.

    I agree that for “legal” reasons (to not to be seen as a state actor), renunciation seems to be best course of action for Superman to continue on his course of action while limiting any legal backlash against the US.

    On a more meta issue, in saying “truth, justice and the American way — it’s not enough anymore” Superman could be saying that either America has become estranged from these things, as Superman sees them, or that the world at large no longer puts any stock in them. Real world Politics and Religions make for messy plot lines.

  3. I’m just wondering how he could claim US citizenship in the first place. He wasn’t born in the US…not even on this planet. So, in fact, he is an actual illegal alien unless he took the citizenship test and oath at some point. How would that work?

  4. > the persona that isn’t actually tied to a permanent address

    Can’t he give “Fortress of Solitude” (where ever it is nowadays) as a permanent address? Mail delivery might be a bit difficult, though. Or maybe “JLA Watchtower, Moon” – which I assume does have a mail service.
    That part actually doesn’t seem significantly harder than people who live on a houseboat or in an RV camper.

  5. This would seem to just create more problems than it solves. Could INS or Border Patrol agents stop Superman anytime he alights on US soil and arrest him for not having a green card, or a passport? Or any legal status, under the assumption that he no longer has his pre-Crisis universal citizenship? Could he be fired upon for violating US airspace? Wouldn’t he just be racking up the federal offenses by continually entering the US illegally? Though I suppose he may have been technically doing that for years, by continually entering other nations illegally. Also, and this may be more of a philosophical question, if he’s not a citizen of any nation, doesn’t that kind of make him an alien invader, if a benevolent one?

    • Superman meets the criteria for a refugee, according to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. He could seek refuge in any signatory nation, I guess.

  6. What’s next? Batman comes out in favor of Warrantless searches: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/04/21/supreme-court-to-consider-whether-gps-tracking-a-search-requiring-warrant/

    Actually that one would kind of make sense…

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  8. What we really want to know is if Clark Kent were to run for President of the United States would he be required to present his birth certificate, baptismal certificate or certificate of circumcision or all of the above? ;)

    • There was already a story with Superman becoming president.

      This happened during the era when the artificial womb story was canon and a court ruled that this made him a US citizen, letting him become president. Given Birthright and Secret Origin, he’d probably have to have been using the foundling statute now (which does make him considered to be a citizen at birth and probably would qualify him for president).

  9. No offense, but this is stupid.

    I know of no jurisdiction that allows a person to be legally considered more than one person. Superman is Clark Kent and Clark Kent is Superman. If he wants to use an alias so long as he doesn’t do so for fraudulent purposes he’s free to do so (at least in the US) but an alias is not a separate person. And if Kent retains his US citizenship while Superman renounces it, he IS using the alias for fraudulent purposes. If Superman isn’t a citizen then neither is Kent. Either Superman’s renunciation is ineffective, or Kent is no longer a US citizen.

    Don’t forget the rather drastic tax consequences of renouncing US citizenship, either, if you want to try to play comic plot games with actual legal principles.

  10. Is renouncing citizenship grounds for divorce?

    Assuming it is, would Lois be able to divorce Superman without having to reveal a reason or revealing her reason under seal, so she could do so without blowing his secret ID?

    • Would the seal be allowed to hold up? Too many people and organizations would have an interest in violating the seal, I’d think.

  11. What rights does “Superman” have as a US citizen honorary or naturalized or of any sort. Superman does not work, he does not get paid and does not pay taxes and probably does not vote. So far as anyone is concerned Superman has citizenship in name only. I doubt seriously that anyone is going to attempt to deport him.

    I imagine that not much will change because it seems like Superman (not Clark) actually uses so few of his American rights and the ones that he might technically be using (I’m guessing that heat vision qualifies as “arms”) no one in their right mind is going to call him on.

    So “Superman” can’t get a job. Whoop-dee-freaking-do, right?

    I think the idea of Superman forfeiting his rights as a citizen of the US is more of a symbolic separation of Superman from a government. It sends a social message that Superman is not part of the American way and furthermore that he is only on this planet because he chooses to be on this planet.

    I think only real issue is going to come when people start asking “Hey Supes, if you aren’t an American anymore why do you hang out in Metropolis so much?”

    • I don’t believe citizenship is connected to economic productivity in America, or at least if it is it’s the first I’ve heard of it. However, Superman does provide value to the world if we want to look at economic productivity; even leaving aside any putative arguments that superheroes somehow create or cause supervillains, Superman’s unique individual powers have provided repeated episodes of wide-scale disaster relief, and organizations in which Superman has a leadership role have provided many other services (such as restarting the sun).

      • Superman has (on many occasions) prevented the destruction of the planet. I’d say the economic value is fairly obvious.
        On another note, when I graduated from college I couldn’t find a job for a while so I couldn’t work, I didn’t pay taxes because I had so little money and while I did vote I was never required to do so. Despite all this I was, and still am, considered to be an American citizen. Citizenship in the United States is not based on economic value or political participation.

    • Granted citizenship isn’t based on economic value or participation, but my point is that Superman’s citizenship is completely symbolic and therefore his renunciation of that citizenship is equally symbolic.

      What, if any, practical legal ramifications are going to come from this act? I doubt he’ll be arrested (unless he visits Arizona…)

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  14. This is a badly premised story which really does nothing for the character or the greater Superman narrative. I expect DC will benefit from the publicity, sell a lot of copies of Action Comics 900 and then let the issue quietly die. The issue of Superman and his citizenship is a messy real world and mundane thing. To renounce, you can’t just go before the UN and make a speech. To have Superman renounce as a legal matter, you have to figure out what proof of citizenship he might have. Superman likely does not have a passport. Clark Kent likely does. To make this story work as far as the legal aspects, you have to settle as to whether Ma and Pa Kent enganged in some kind of fraud to get documents for little Clark (e.g. by claiming him as their natural born child born on the farm) or whether they turned him over to state authorities as a foundling and then adopted him (which fits some of the origin stories, and seems more in keeping with the elder Kents’ characters). However, we did not need a story to take us there. But we are there because the author did not think through either Superman’s character or history. Instead, there seems to have been an agenda, and an author not up to the task of making his point without being ham handed. Superman would have thought through the whole renunciation, the citizenship actually belongs to Clark Kent, etc. sort of thing. He is a genius. The author of the story obviously isn’t.

  15. It appears that Superman’s renunciation is not effective by virtue of . 8 U.S.C. § 1481 (5) which provides that renunciation may be completed by;

    “making a formal renunciation of nationality before a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States in a foreign state, in such form as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State”

    Superman’s renunciation occurred at the U.N.. U.N. headquarters is international territory. The question then becomes whether international territory qualifies as “a foreign state” for the purposes of 8 U.S.C. § 1481. The prescribed method of renunciation under this section (according to the State Department) is to renounce citizenship in front of a U.S. Diplomat at a foreign embassy.

    Further, Superman’s renunciation might meet some of the requirements of an official renunciation under 8 U.S.C. § 1481 (6) (provided that his verbal renunciation was accompanied by a written statement) which provides that one may renounce citizenship by

    “making in the United States a formal written renunciation of nationality in such form as may be prescribed by, and before such officer as may be designated by, the Attorney General, whenever the United States shall be in a state of war and the Attorney General shall approve such renunciation as not contrary to the interests of national defense”

    However, it seems doubtful that the Attorney General would approve of Superman’s renunciation as it fairly clearly would be contrary to the interests of national defense.

    Maybe the writers aren’t aware of these provisions or don’t care, or they are aware and are setting up an about-face on this whole bit.

    Just sayin’

    • I think we can file this in Did Not Do the Research territory. But we have other reasons to suspect that this renunciation might not be effective, and we plan on exploring those soon.

    • To be fair to the writers, take a look at what Superman actually said. “…which is why I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. citizenship.” (Emphasis mine.) Nothing there indicates that this announcement is supposed to be the act itself. A quick bit of googling suggests that DC issued a press release stating that this was not going to be followed up on in the comics, and that there are hints that it might be part of the next Superman movie.

      • The refusal to research and write what could be a very entertaining follow-through story – or series of stories – would be disappointing.

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  17. Regarding the Sec. of State saying, “No, you can’t renounce because it’d be bad for national defense,” do you really want to be the Cabinet official that just DECLARED your intent to weaponize the Man of Steel on your nation’s behalf, even just implicitly? Especially since he’s already indicating he does NOT agree that he should be answerable to, nor responsible for, the US Government in terms of how he chooses to use his powers?

    Yeah, let’s try to arrest the man who can give the World of Cardboard speech to DARKSEID. Superman may be a proponent of law, but he’s demonstrated in the past that his ideals trump it if it ultimately comes down to it. You’re setting yourself up for, AT BEST, embarrassment. If you try to force the issue, you could be throwing a way tons of resources on a fruitless endeavor, to boot.

    • You might not want to but in situations like that lots of undiplomatic things get said that the government later retracts or states ‘is not the opinion of the United States government’.

  18. In one sense, Superman is insulating the US from being held accountable for his actions. Most lately the DC hero community had a problem dealing with the old Captain Marvel foe Black Adam, who took over the fictional county of Khandaq, where he treats its citizens well, but also extends citizenship to a group of disgraced heroes and ex-villians who administer justice as he sees fit. If Superman and the Justice League of America decide to take down Black Adam or his group, and it appears the resulting fight took place with the blessing of the US Government, Adam might come over and kill a few thousand people in retaliation (In fact, something like that happened in a miniseries titled “World War III”).

    But the question does remain as to whether Superman ever actually took the citizenship oath in the first place. Everyone already knew he was from planet Krypton.

    • I don’t think he would have to take the citizenship oath. The three main paths to citizenship for Superman are citizenship by birth in the US, the foundling statute, and citizenship by private act of Congress. None of those would require taking the oath, which is a part of the naturalization process.

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  20. The more this is examined, the less sense it makes. It seems like it would prompt a bunch of uncomfortable secret-identity questions from the media – “Wait, you’re an American citizen? How so? Do you have a birth certificate? Naturalization papers? Nothing under “Superman” is known in the records, so – what name is it?” (legal privacy issues aside, realistically that last fact will leak).

    Before, with these sorts of questions, he could just say something like “I don’t want to talk about my private life”, and refuse to answer further. Now if he makes his status a public issue, ignoring those questions looks very bad for him.

    A DC universe version of Birtherism would be annoying at least.

    And it’s a bit late to be showing trans-national values. That really should have been from the very first time he flew into space.

  21. Eh, I don’t think the media demanding proof of his citizenship before he can renounce it is likely to be a water-holder. A simple, “I intend to renounce my citizenship. If I am NOT a citizen, then this action is needless, but the end result is the same. As my goal is to officially separate my actions from any responsibility of the US government, it is irrelevant whether this act is legally necessary or not.”

    Quick question that probably better goes under the original “Superman’s Citizenship” article, but is less likely to be noticed there at this stage: Of the three methods for him claiming citizenship, which do and which do not constitute “natural born” status? I am particularly curious if “private act of Congress” can confer that status, specifically in order to make a person eligible for the Presidency despite not necessarily having been physically born with the property of being a US Citizen.

    • I think that’s going to generate some version of “What? Wait a minute, you’re renouncing something you may never have had? Isn’t that just a cheap publicity stunt?”

      It’s not like he’s “Captain AMERICA”, where the connection is tied into his hero identity in an official way.

      It’s confusing inside the DC universe, where it’s even not clear to the general public that Superman is American at all.

  22. Minhquan Nguyen

    I accidentally posted this in the Mailbag post–sorry:

    In the same issue of Action Comics #900, Superman tells Lex Luthor outright that “Clark Kent is Superman.” Do you think that makes a difference in interpreting Clark Kent’s citizenship status in light of his alter-ego renouncing his own?

    • SPOILER ALERT:

      Considering that Lex’s memory has been suppressed – yet again – on this point, that appears to be irrelevant in this situation.

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