A Summary of the Burris Commentary and Issues

The dispute over the appointment of Roland Burris has drawn commentary from a number of legal scholars.  Akil Amar, Josh Chafetz and Larry Tribe have expressed the view that the Senate may properly refuse to seat him, as have, somewhat more tentatively, Jack Balkin and Mark Tushnet.   Eugene Volokh, Brian Kalt, Michael Rappaport, Sandy Levinson, Erwin Chemerinsky and Don Wolfensberger take the opposite view, with Ann Althouse and Walter  Dellinger also expressing skepticism about the Senate’s authority to exclude Burris.  Rick Hasen believes that the right way to get rid of Burris would be to seat him and then expel with a two-thirds vote, while Bob Bauer argues that the Senate could preemptively expel Burris (presumably with a two-thirds vote). 

Here is a brief summary of the issues.

Does the Senate have authority to judge appointments? No commentator seems to doubt that the Senate has some authority to judge appointments. This may simply reflect the fact that the Senate by necessity must make decisions about who is entitled to a seat. The Senate has to determine whether state law empowers the Governor to make a temporary appointment (in Alaska, for example, this is not so clear). The Senate has to determine whether an appointment was actually made and, if so, the person claiming the seat is the person appointed.

Can Burris be rejected on the grounds that he lacks a proper certificate of appointment? In order to ensure that the claimant has authentic credentials, the Senate (and federal law, see 2 U.S.C. §1b) requires that the certificate of appointment (or election) be signed by both the Governor and the Secretary of State. Although the Secretary of State has refused to sign Burris’s certificate, even the supporters of Senate exclusion doubt that this is a valid basis for refusing to seat him. Thus, Professor Tribe notes “that the Illinois secretary of state refuses to sign the certificate of appointment is evidently immaterial under the governing provisions of Illinois law, which make the signature merely ceremonial.” The deficiency in the certificate perhaps provides the Senate with a basis for refusing to seat Burris immediately, but only for so long as it takes to satisfy itself that (1) Burris was in fact appointed by the Governor (which is not in dispute) and, perhaps, (2) the Secretary lacks any discretionary authority to withhold his signature (which also seems clear). Moreover, this issue becomes moot if the Illinois Supreme Court grants Burris’s motion to compel the Secretary to sign the certificate.

Professors Levinson and Tushnet have some follow-up debate on this point, with Tushnet making the interesting (but I think quite mistaken) suggestion that the Secretary here might be considered part of executive appointing authority under the 17th Amendment.

Is the Senate’s authority express or implied? The Constitution provides that each House “shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.” It is conceded that Burris has the constitutional “qualifications” to be a Senator (age, citizenship and residency) and the Supreme Court held, in Powell v. McCormick, 395 U.S. 486 (1969), that Congress cannot refuse to seat a member for failure to meet qualifications other than those specified in the Constitution. Some commentators construe the Senate’s refusal to seat Burris as an impermissible attempt to add qualifications, but the Senate would not attempt to justify its action on that basis. Instead, the Senate would have to proceed either under the express powers to judge elections and returns, or under an implied power to judge appointments.

My initial view was that the Senate has no express power to judge appointments, but I am now leaning slightly the other way. Professors Amar and Chafetz argue that the power to judge returns encompasses judging of appointments, on the theory that the “report” of the appointment would constitute a “return” within the meaning of the Constitution (Tushnet makes a similar point). Although more historical evidence is needed to substantiate this argument, it is not implausible. Alternatively, as Amar and Chafetz suggest, the election-judging power may be applicable here. One reason for thinking that an appointed Senator is nonetheless “elected” within the meaning of the Constitution is that the Qualifications Clause requires that a Senator “when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State.” Since it seems unlikely that this requirement was intended to be inapplicable to appointed Senators, one may infer that the term “election” embraces appointed Senators as well as those chosen by the people (or, as in the original Constitution, the state legislatures).

Whether the power is express or implied is not necessarily determinative of how Burris’s case should be treated. However, if the power is expressly conveyed by the Constitution, one might tend to give the Senate a broader discretion to decide whether to exclude an appointee. In addition, if the power is “textually committed” to the Senate, the courts are more likely to view its exercise as a political question (as discussed later).

How far does the power to judge appointments extend? This question lies at the heart of what divides the commentators. Every commentator appears to agree that Burris could be excluded if his appointment were procured by bribery (or other corrupt means such as fraud, blackmail, or extortion). However, Amar, Chafetz and Tribe would go further and say that the appointment can be set aside because it was “tainted” by Blagojevich’s initial (alleged) attempt to sell the Senate seat, even though Burris’s appointment itself was not procured by bribery. Amar and Chafetz note that Burris may only have been chosen because Blagojevich refused to consider other candidates who would not go along with his “pay to play” scheme or who were important witnesses in the criminal case against him. Tribe would go even further; he suggests that the mere appearance of impropriety resulting from the corruption scandal is enough to justify the Senate in setting the appointment aside.

On the other side, Professor Kalt argues that the Amar/Chafetz thesis has no logical stopping point. If the original corruption taints future appointments by Blagojevich, wouldn’t it taint a future appointment by Blagojevich’s successor (who would no doubt be less likely to consider anyone involved, even tangentially, in the scandal)? This problem, of course, is even more acute if one accepts Tribe’s appearance of impropriety standard.

Similarly, Dean Chemerinsky raises a “slippery slope” concern with rejecting Burris for reasons other than actual corruption. He argues that it set be a “dangerous precedent” and could “open the door to the Senate or the House overturning the will of the people and excluding representatives under one or another pretext.” Or as Levinson puts it, “I don’t see how one can mount a good-faith argument against seating Burris unless one is willing to open each and every gubernatorial appointment to some kind of ‘good-government’ scrutiny.”

It seems to me that the most fundamental problem with the attempt to exclude Burris is that it is based on a blanket refusal to accept anyone that Blagojevich appoints. Indeed, Tribe explicitly endorses that as a virtue of the Senate’s position, namely that it is entirely unrelated to the identity of the appointee. Whatever the outer boundary of the Senate’s authority to judge appointments, surely it must be crossed if the Senate uses it to strip the Governor of his appointment power altogether. It would be as if the Senate declared that the State of Illinois was too corrupt and incompetent to hold a fair election and so that it would refuse to seat any Senator elected from that state.

What quantum of evidence is needed to justify conducting an investigation before seating Burris? If the Senate believes that Burris’s appointment is potentially illegitimate, it has the option of seating him without prejudice to its right to determine that he is not entitled to the seat, or to decline to seat him pending an investigation by the Committee on Rules and Administration. While none of the commentators propose a specific evidentiary standard that would need to be met in order to justify an investigation prior to seating, presumably there would have to be something more than mere suspicion. Otherwise, the Senate could use its power to refuse to seat elected or appointed Senators for arbitrary or improper reasons.

One might argue that Blagojevich’s previously corrupt conduct is enough to warrant an investigation of whether Burris’s appointment was procured in a corrupt manner. This argument, however, is weak under the circumstances. Given that Burris was not appointed (or, apparently, even considered for appointment) until after Blagojevich was arrested for allegedly trying to sell the Senate seat to others, it seems highly unlikely that Blagojevich was bribed to appoint Burris (Blagojevich probably counted himself lucky that he didn’t have to pay Burris to accept the appointment). As Levinson points out, “it’s clear that [Blagojevich’s initial attempt to sell the seat] didn’t work, and that he, clever politician that he is, reached out to strengthen himself with a key constituency and, an added bonus, to discomfort many of his erstwhile Democratic Party allies.”

To be clear, I have no doubt that the Senate may conduct an investigation regarding the circumstances of Burris’s appointment, but it is questionable whether it has the constitutional authority to prevent him from taking his seat while the investigation is pending.

Would a challenge to the Senate’s refusal to seat Burris be justiciable? Regardless of whether the Senate has the constitutional authority to refuse to seat Burris, a court might conclude that the political question doctrine precludes it from reviewing that decision. Although Powell held the political question doctrine inapplicable to an attempt to exclude a Member for lacking qualifications other than those specified in the Constitution, Professor Dellinger states that the decision “leave[s] open the possibility that a Congressional decision finding that a member was not properly elected—in this case, appointed” would be immune from judicial review.

Indeed, it is generally believed that the exercise of the election-judging power would be, at least in most circumstances, non-justiciable. As then-Judge Scalia wrote in the DC Circuit case of Morgan v. United States, 801 F.2d 445 (D.C. Cir. 1986), involving an election contest from Indiana, “[i]t is difficult to imagine a clearer case of “textually demonstrable constitutional commitment” of an issue to another branch of government to the exclusion of the courts . . . than the language of Article I, section 5, clause 1 that ‘[e]ach House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.’”

Whether or not the decision to seat Burris would be non-justiciable depends, in part, whether the power to judge appointments inheres in the election-judging power, or whether it is merely an implied power. If the former, the decision not to seat Burris would more likely be viewed by the courts as beyond their review. However, even in that instance, the courts might review the Senate’s decision if they construe it not as an attempt to judge a particular appointment, but an attempt to strip the Governor of the appointment power altogether.

All in all, the question of justiciability is a close one (as I think most, if not all, of the commentators agree). However, as Professor Rappaport points out, “one must distinguish between who gets to decide and what the Constitution requires of the decisionmaker.” In other words, whether the Senate could get away with refusing to seat Burris is a different question that whether it has the constitutional authority to do so. In fact, Dellinger notes that the possible absence of judicial review is reason for the Senate to “take more care, not less” regarding its decision. As he puts it, the “Senate’s power to decide is only the power to decide correctly under the law, not the power to decide however the majority of the Senate prefers to decide.”

May the Senate use its powers under the Disciplinary Clause to expel Burris? The Constitution provides that each House may “punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.” One might argue that this provision limits punishment to “disorderly Behaviour,” but allows expulsion for any reason whatsoever. However, while both the House and the Senate have construed the scope of their disciplinary powers broadly, neither has suggested that it has the right to expel a Member without some sort of misconduct by that Member. Thus, I believe that it would be problematic for the Senate to expel Burris unless it found some sort of misconduct on his part (although one could imagine that such misconduct might consist of Burris’s acceptance of the appointment with knowledge of improper motivations on the part of Blagojevich). Nonetheless, Professor Hasen is almost certainly correct that if the Senate were to expel Burris (which would require a two-thirds vote), such action would be judicially unreviewable.