When Does Senator Burris’s Term End?

Lisa Madigan, the Attorney General of Illinois, has issued this opinion regarding the proposal to set a date for an earlier special election to fill the vacant Senate seat of Barack Obama, the seat currently filled on a temporary basis by Roland Burris.  (Hat tip to Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog and this post on Law Dork). Madigan concludes that “[i]t is well within the Legislature’s power to consider and enact changes to the current law to specify an earlier date for the election.”  

In a later post I will discuss the substance of the issue, but first I would note this peculiar sentence in Madigan’s opinion (also discussed in the Law Dork post): “Under the current language of section 25-8, U.S. Senator Burris’s temporary appointment will conclude in January 2011 following an election in November 2010, the next election of representatives in Congress.” 

This seems quite wrong.  The Illinois statute (section 25-8) provides: “When a vacancy shall occur in the office of United States Senator from this state, the Governor shall make temporary appointment to fill such vacancy until the next election of representatives in Congress, at which time such vacancy shall be filled by election, and the senator so elected shall take office as soon thereafter as he shall receive his certificate of election.”  This law is clear that an election to fill the vacancy takes place at the next general election and that the Senator-elect then fills the vacancy as soon as the certificate issues.  Burris’s term would therefore end immediately after the November election. 

The fact that Obama’s original term will expire in January 2011 is of no moment.  The general election will choose both the person who will fill the remaining two months of the unexpired term and the person who will succeed to the Senate seat for a full term beginning on January 3, 2011.  This would hardly be the first time that a House or Senate vacancy has been filled in the same election as chose the successor for the next term.  At least some states have done this with a single ballot line that chooses both offices (which, I suppose, means that you have two elections on one line).  In one case in 1994 (involving JC Watts, I believe) the state law provided that the winner of the general election would be automatically appointed by the governor to fill the House vacancy, which raised some constitutional questions.  The House did seat the Member-elect to fill the vacancy, however. 

Even if Illinois attempted to extend Burris’s current term until January 2011, I am not sure that it would be valid.  Riddick’s Senate Procedure (p. 710) contains this entry:  “The action of the Governor of a State in certifying that the term of a person, chosen at a general election to fill the unexpired term, should begin on the following January 3, was challenged in 1939 as being beyond his power.  The contention was made that the Senate fixes the time at which the service of a Senator begins, and that the Governor had only the right to certify the fact of election.  In that year, the Senate also decided that the term of service and compensation of a Senator appointed by the Governor of a State to fill a vacancy ended on the day of the election of his successor by the people when the Senate was in sine die adjournment.”  

Thus, Burris’s term will end in November 2010, not in January 2011 as suggested by the Madigan opinion.       

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