More Fun with Certificates of Election

         Al Franken has petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court for an order directing the Governor and Secretary of State to prepare and countersign a certificate of election and deliver the same to the President of the United States Senate.  The Governor and the Secretary have refused; they contend that, under Minnesota law, issuance of a certificate must await resolution of an election contest filed by Franken’s opponent, incumbent Norm Coleman.

            Franken acknowledges that Minnesota law is ambiguous on this point, but he claims that the state law must be read to mandate the issuance of a certificate.   Any other reading, he argues, would render the Minnesota law unconstitutional.  Specifically, Franken argues that Minnesota’s failure to issue an election certificate prior to the commencement of the new Congress “has interfered with the Senate’s ability to provisionally seat Senator-elect Franken and tend to the nation’s business with a full complement of Senators.”

            Franken is somewhat vague as to how the absence of a certificate has “interfered” with the Senate’s ability to seat him.  He does not actually say that the Senate is prohibited from seating him without a certificate (probably because he wants to preserve his option to argue the opposite to the Senate at a later time).  If there is such a prohibition, it can only exist because of Senate rules.  It would be this self-imposed rule, not Minnesota law, which would be “interfering” with the Senate’s ability to seat Franken.

            As suggested by the Illinois Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Burris case, it is in fact doubtful that Senate rules make the absence of a certificate an absolute bar to considering whether to seat a Senator.  If Senate rules did establish an absolute bar, there might be a constitutional objection to such rules as interfering with the Senate’s power to judge elections.  It is difficult to see, however, how this would impose upon Minnesota a constitutional requirement to issue an election certificate at any particular point in its process.

               If refusing to issue a certificate to Franken interferes with the Senate’s ability to seat him, it would have to be true that issuing such a certificate would interfere with the Senate’s ability to seat Coleman.  Yet the Senate clearly has the constitutional authority to judge the election and choose to seat either candidate, either now or at a later time.  In Roudebush  v. Hartke, 405 U.S. 15 (1972),  the winner of the initial count in a Senate race (Hartke) received a certificate of election from the State of Indiana and was provisionally seated by the Senate.   He then sought a federal court injunction to stop Indiana from proceeding with a recount, which was permitted under Indiana law notwithstanding the fact that a certificate of election had already issued.  The Supreme Court rejected the argument that the state recount would unconstitutionally interfere with or frustrate the Senate’s election-judging power: 

It is true that a State’s verification of the accuracy of election results pursuant to its Art. I, § 4, powers is not totally separable from the Senate’s power to judge elections and returns. But a recount can be said to “usurp” the Senate’s function only if it frustrates the Senate’s ability to make an independent final judgment. A recount does not prevent the Senate from independently evaluating the election any more than the initial count does. The Senate is free to accept or reject the   apparent winner in either count, and, if it chooses, to conduct its own recount. 

Id. at 25.  In other words, the Senate could have seated Roudebush (the other candidate), notwithstanding the fact that Hartke was initially declared the winner and issued the certificate of election, and it was free to accept or reject the results of the recount, regardless of whether they confirmed or overturned the results of the initial count. 

             In short, Minnesota’s refusal to issue an election certificate raises no serious constitutional question.