An interesting Seventeenth Amendment issue is raised by this Atlantic article by Professor Garrett Epps. Epps contends that the Arizona law which permitted the governor to appoint Martha McSally to fill the vacant senate seat arising from the death of Senator John McCain is unconstitutional. A new lawsuit filed in Arizona federal court, Tedards v. Ducey, seeks to force the governor to call an immediate special election to fill the vacancy.
To understand the issue, we should begin with the text of the Seventeenth Amendment:
When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.
This seemingly straightforward language turns out to be more complicated on closer inspection. For example, what happens if a vacancy arises so close to the end of a senate term it is impossible or impractical to call a special election to fill the remainder of the term? A literal reading of the constitutional language might suggest that in such instances the governor is disabled from making an appointment at all because such an appointment would not be a “temporary” one lasting only until the people fill the vacancy by election.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the constitutional text has not been so interpreted, presumably because it makes little or no sense to deprive the governor of the authority to fill a vacancy in such circumstances and because to do so would contravene the important goal of ensuring that each state is fully represented in the Senate. See U.S. const., art. v (“no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate”). Indeed, there have been at least 27 instances since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment where the governor’s appointee served out the balance of the senate term rather than being replaced at some point by a senator popularly elected to fill the vacancy. See Judge v. Quinn, 612 F.3d 537, 556 (7th Cir. 2010) (“Judge I“). This practice is at least some evidence that the Constitution does not require a special election in all circumstances when a senate vacancy is filled by executive appointment.
What about vacancies at the opposite extreme, namely those that arise relatively early in a senate term? The Seventeenth Amendment does not specify when the special election to fill a vacancy must take place. Thus, if a state were to provide that the special election to fill the vacancy take place at the time of the general election immediately preceding the expiration of the senate term, the election could theoretically take place more than five years after the vacancy arose. Although such a state law would not violate the literal terms of the Seventeenth Amendment, it arguably conflicts with the spirit of the amendment’s “primary objective of guaranteeing that senators are selected by the people of the states in popular elections.” Judge I, 612 F.3d at 555.