We’ve written previously about Superman’s U.S. citizenship (and his brief flirtation with renouncing it), but he isn’t the only superhero with potential citizenship issues. Believe it or not, Aquaman has troubles of his own, even if they aren’t addressed explicitly in the comics. As astute reader Frank asked, “[DC New 52] Aquaman is half-American, on his father’s side. As a citizen, can he hold a title of nobility, namely “King of Atlantis,” in a foreign country?” As the question implies, there are two issues here: Can Aquaman be King of Atlantis while remaining a U.S. citizen? And can a U.S. citizen hold a foreign title of nobility?
As discussed previously, 8 U.S.C. § 1481 provides several ways in which someone can lose their U.S. citizenship, if they are done “with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality.” In Aquaman’s case, subsection (a)(4)(A) is the most likely route to renunciation:
accepting, serving in, or performing the duties of any office, post, or employment under the government of a foreign state or a political subdivision thereof, after attaining the age of eighteen years if he has or acquires the nationality of such foreign state
Since Aquaman is an Atlantean citizen, assuming the office of King of Atlantis would seem to be sufficient. Strictly speaking, he would also have to do so with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality, but intent can be inferred from actions. Perkins v. Elg, 99 F.2d 408, 412 (D.C. Cir. 1938) (“expatriation is a matter of intent on the part of the person concerned, which intent must be shown by some express act or some other act from which it can be gathered”). In fact, the State Department considers accepting a policy-level position in a foreign government to be prima facie evidence of intent to relinquish citizenship. The fact that Aquaman remains a citizen of Atlantis means that he is not at risk of becoming stateless, which is one of the major policy reasons prohibiting the involuntary imposition of expatriation. Tropp v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958).
Notably, Aquaman later abdicated the throne to be a full-time superhero based in Boston. Could this abdication signal that he never intended to relinquish his American citizenship? Probably not. “After an American citizen has performed an overt act which spells expatriation under the wording of the statute he cannot preserve for himself a duality of citizenship by showing his intent or understanding to have been contrary to the usual legal consequences of such an act.” Grassi v. Acheson, 101 F.Supp. 431, 432 (D.D.C. 1951); see also Terrazas v. Muskie, 494 F.Supp. 1017, 1020 (N.D.Ill. 1980) (“plaintiff’s struggle to retain his citizenship is likely evidence of his realization of the gravity of his earlier decision to relinquish his citizenship”).
So is there any hope for Aquaman? There is a slim thread. Any doubts or ambiguities in these kinds of cases must be resolved in favor of retaining citizenship. Dulles v. Katamoto, 256 F.2d 545, 548 (9th Cir. 1958) (“in construing § 401(d) as to such a dual national … the facts and the law should be construed as far as reasonably possible in favor of the citizen.”); Nishikawa v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 129, 133 (1958) (“when a citizenship claimant proves his birth in this country or acquisition of American citizenship in some other way, the burden is upon the Government to prove an act that shows expatriation by clear, convincing and unequivocal evidence”). Unfortunately for him, the only issue is whether Aquaman intended to relinquish his citizenship: the fact that he voluntarily assumed the throne of Atlantis is established beyond doubt.
II. Titles of Nobility
The Title of Nobility Clause of the U.S. Constitution forbids both the federal government and the states from granting titles of nobility. U.S. Const. art. 1 § 9 cl. 8; U.S. Const. art. 1 § 10 cl. 1. Furthermore, “no person holding any office of profit or trust under [the United States], shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” But these clauses do not prohibit private citizens from holding such titles, so Aquaman is in the clear in that regard. He could hold a title of nobility as long as he did not “accept, serve in, or perform the duties of any office, post, or employment under the government of” Atlantis.
By the by, the reason why U.S. citizens are granted honorary knighthoods rather than proper ones (e.g. Bill Gates, who is a KBE but may not use the title “Sir”) is not because of the Title of Nobility Clause but rather because proper knighthoods are only granted to British subjects.
There is a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit private citizens from holding titles of nobility, on pain of expatriation, but it has not been ratified by three-fourths of the states. Interestingly, the twelve ratifications it has received so far still “count,” and so if 28 more states ratified it then it would become part of the Constitution. Such a long period between proposal and adoption is not unheard of: The Twenty-Seventh (and currently last) Amendment was adopted 203 years after its proposal in 1788.
Once again Aquaman has been overshadowed by better-known superheroes, even when it comes to fictional legal troubles. Where was the Fox News outrage that the former King of Atlantis was allowed to roam the streets of Boston without being deported? Where are the Republican candidates on this issue? Superman merely threatened to renounce his citizenship in a non-canon side-story, whereas Aquaman actually went and did it, as far as the law is concerned, yet there is only silence. Aquaman just can’t catch a break.