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What to Do About Senator Burris?

Roland Burris, the junior Senator from Illinois, has a problem.  Actually, he has many problems.  After being appointed to the U.S. Senate by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, Burris testified about the circumstances of his appointment before the Illinois legislature, which was considering Blagojevich’s impeachment for, among other things, attempting to sell that very same Senate seat.  Based in part on Burris’s assurances that his appointment had no hint of the corruption that had allegedly marked Blagojevich’s earlier attempts to fill the vacancy, the U.S. Senate decided to seat Burris. 

Since then, Blagojevich has been impeached and removed from office and, it turns out, Burris’s testimony regarding the circumstances of his appointment was, at best, incomplete.  Specifically, Burris now admits that he spoke three times in October and November of last year with Rob Blagojevich, the Governor’s brother, who solicited campaign contributions on his brother’s behalf.  Burris says that he decided to make this additional disclosure “because he recently reviewed the full transcript of the proceedings and saw that it wasn’t clear that he disclosed all his contacts” to the state legislature.  Others, less charitably, have suggested that Burris lied to the legislature or knowingly failed to disclose information that was clearly relevant to the proceedings.   

Burris now faces the possibility of a state criminal investigation for perjury.  In addition, the state legislature might conduct further investigation, possibly with an eye toward holding Burris in contempt.  Burris could also face an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.  It is also possible that the Senate’s decision to seat Burris could be re-opened, and the matter could be referred to the Senate Rules Committee to investigate the validity of the appointment.  Finally, there is a possibility that Illinois could change the law regarding Senate vacancies and provide for an immediate special election to fill out the remainder of the Senate term.

There are several reasons why state proceedings here would be inadequate. State proceedings could only address the question of whether Burris made an intentionally false statement material to the issue of Blagojevich’s impeachment. They could not address the question of deliberate omission, nor could they address the question of whether Burris made false or incomplete statements to the U.S. Senate (such as in his “interview” with Majority Leader Reid). Moreover, state proceedings could not address the real question of interest to the U.S. Senate and the general public, i.e., whether Burris made misrepresentations or omissions material to the validity of his appointment.

An investigation by the U.S. Senate is therefore in order. The matter could be referred to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee because that committee had jurisdiction over the issue of whether Burris should have been seated in the first place. However, it is unclear whether that issue can be re-opened at this stage. Under Senate precedent, Burris could have been seated “without prejudice” to the Senate’s right to review the validity of his appointment at a later time. Despite the controversy surrounding Burris’s appointment, the Senate did not, as far as I know, attempt to limit or condition Burris’s seating in this fashion. Therefore, it is arguable that it is too late to review the validity of the appointment.

In any event, this matter seems more appropriate for investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. Even if Burris’s appointment is still a live issue, the new information provided by Burris would not, in itself, necessarily be sufficient to invalidate the appointment. On the other hand, if Burris lied about or intentionally failed to disclose this information, he certainly failed to comply with the Senate’s standards of conduct and engaged in conduct tending to bring the Senate into disrepute. This is a matter that falls squarely within the jurisdiction of the Ethics Committee.

The Ethics Committee should therefore commence an investigation to determine whether Burris made misrepresentations or deliberate omissions regarding the circumstances of his appointment, including in his testimony to the state legislature and his communications to the Senate. If the question of the validity of the appointment itself remains an issue, the Senate should also adopt a resolution empowering the Ethics Committee to investigate that question and to report its findings to the Rules Committee and/or the Senate.

Finally, the possibility that the Illinois legislature may change the law to require an immediate special election is not a reason for the Ethics Committee to hold off action. Even if a special election is held and a replacement for Burris is elected, it is likely that Burris would challenge the constitutionality of applying this new law to him since at the time of his appointment the law provided that he would serve until the general election of 2010. Thus, there is no guarantee that waiting for a special election will make this matter go away.

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