More on the Roland Burris Appointment: A Response to Amar and Chafetz
Over at Slate, Josh Chafetz and my mentor Akhil Reed Amar have penned what I think is the best argument one can make that the Senate can and should refuse to seat Roland Burris, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s pick to fill that state’s vacant Senate seat. The best, but still not enough in my opinion, following up on my earlier post.
The core of their argument is that the Senate can judge the elections and returns of its members, and so “[i]f the Senate may refuse to seat a person picked in a corrupt election, it likewise may refuse to seat a person picked in a corrupt appointment process.” They continue that:
To be sure, there is no evidence Burris bribed the governor to get this seat. But imagine if Burris had won election only because other candidates were wrongly and corruptly kept off the ballot. Surely the Senate could properly deem this an invalid election. Similarly, it now seems apparent that there were candidates that Blagojevich refused to consider for improper reasons—because one refused to “pay to play” early on, or because another is at the center of the impending criminal case against the governor. With the appointments process so inherently and irremediably tainted, the Senate may properly decide that nothing good can come from a Blagojevich appointment.
Here’s why I think that’s wrong.
Their analogy would work if, say, Jesse Jackson, Jr. got appointed over the corruptly excluded Valerie Jarrett. But that’s not what is happening here. Go back to the election analogy. Let’s say that an election was corrupt. The Senate rightly refuses to seat the winner of the election. Now there is a vacancy. Thus, the governor gets to appoint someone to fill it, and if he does so without any shenanigans that time, it should be OK.
The alternative would be to say that once one bad thing happens, the Senate can force the vacancy to persist until there can be a new and clean election. As my colleague Mae Kuykendall points out, though, the new election wouldn’t remove the “irremediable taint” of the corrupt vacancy anymore than a new and clean appointment would. What removes the stain of corruption is a non-corrupt appointment pursuant to state law. As warm-feeling a policy as boycotting Blagojevich might be, I don’t read Art. I, § 5 and the 17th Amendment as giving the Senate that authority here. It seems to me that those provisions leave it to state law to determine how vacancies are filled.
The alternative is a situation in which the seat remains vacant until the IL legislature either removes Blagojevich or passes a law stripping him of the appointment power and mandating an election. But surely that puts the cart before the horse. The legislature has had the opportunity to do both of those things already, and has declined to do so.
Put another way, the law is that the governor fills this vacancy. That law was followed here. No one is claiming that Blagojevich broke the law in selecting Burris. In the absence of any such evidence—let alone in the absence of an attempt to even look for such evidence—the Senate cannot legitimately question the “returns” here.
At least Amar and Chafetz have made a plausible legal argument, as opposed to Senator Reid’s legally vacant pronouncements. I find it ironic that Reid, a Mormon, is hearkening back to the pre-Powell notion of excluding people from Congress through guilt by association. Back in the day, that illegal approach was used to keep Mormons out of Congress for being Mormons. Senator Reed Smoot was challenged on these grounds, and it took four years of hearings and debate before he was seated. Notwithstanding their hard-to-overstate distaste for the people who sent Smoot to the Senate, the senators eventually let him take his seat.
More relevant for current purposes is that they seated him provisionally in the meantime, and had a real debate about it, instead of reaching their conclusion before he had even arrived.