Burris’s Options if a Special Election is Called


            Senator Burris, through his attorney, has indicated that he believes it would be illegal for the Illinois legislature to change the date of the special election to fill the remainder of the Senate term.  It is also apparent that he is willing to mount a vigorous legal challenge. 

             If Illinois enacts a law requiring a special election, Burris may seek relief in either state or federal court (or both) seeking to prevent the election from being held.  It is possible, perhaps likely, that he will be unable to obtain a ruling on the merits, however.  I imagine that the courts would be reluctant to enjoin an election, and they may be inclined to dismiss Burris’s challenge on standing, ripeness or other threshold grounds.  After all, it is always possible that Burris could win the special election or that the Senate would refuse to seat the winner. 

            Assuming that the special election was held (and someone other than Burris prevailed), Burris might also seek to enjoin the issuance of a certificate of election.  At that stage, however, it seems likely that the courts would defer to the Senate, which has the constitutional power to judge the election of its members.   

            Burris’s next option would be to ask the Senate to refuse to seat the winner of the special election.  (This request in itself might create a difficult question for the Senate, because Burris’s right to challenge the credentials of a Senator-elect would be dependent on his being a member of the Senate, but it could be argued that once the certificate of election issued, Burris ceased to be a member of the Senate.)  The Senate would either refer the matter to the Committee on Rules and Administration, or proceed to have the full Senate vote on whether to seat the winner.  Either way, the Senate would have to confront the difficult constitutional issue posed by Illinois’s changing of the special election date. 

            Assuming that the Senate decides to seat the special election winner and unseat Burris (which, politically, seems like a virtual certainty), Burris could proceed to challenge his exclusion from the Senate in federal court.  It is possible that this issue would be deemed a political question unreviewable by a court.  But it is also possible that a court would view the political question doctrine as inapplicable to the issue at hand, since the question presented is a pure legal issue under the Seventeenth Amendment which involves no exercise of discretion or judgment by the Senate. 

            All of this is a long way of saying that the attempt to remove Burris by means of a special election is likely to result in a long legal fight, probably on multiple fronts, and present a major distraction to the Senate.   A special election is by no means an easy way out for the Senate.  To the contrary, an ethics investigation, culminating in a decision on Burris’s expulsion, is the cleanest and most constitutionally appropriate way of resolving this vexing problem.

Can the Illinois Legislature Change the Date of the Special Election to Replace Senator Burris?

As noted in the previous post, Lisa Madigan, the Attorney General of Illinois, issued this opinion dated February 25, 2009 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.  She 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.”  

While this conclusion may or may not be correct, the opinion fails to support the conclusion and, in fact, largely ignores the real issue here.  At the time that then-Governor Blagojevich appointed Burris, Illinois law authorized the Governor to make a temporary appointment to fill a vacant Senate seat until the time of the next general election (ie, in November 2010), at which time a special election will be held to finish out the term (ie, the remaining two months).  The Illinois legislature is now considering moving up the time of the special election.   

            The Seventeenth Amendment provides 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.”  The question is whether the legislature must direct the time, place and manner of the election at the time it empowers the executive to make temporary appointments. 

            Under one reading, the legislature may direct the conduct of the special election at any time.  Thus, for example, the legislature could empower the executive to make temporary appointments and leave open the time for the special election, which the legislature would establish after the appointment on a case-by-case basis. 

            This reading, though, runs into some problems.  Black’s Law Dictionary defines “temporary” as “that which is to last for a limited time only, as distinguished from that which is perpetual, or indefinite, in its duration.”  If the executive makes an appointment without a specified date for a special election (or one where the specified date is subject to change), the appointment is arguably indefinite, rather than temporary.  Put another way, the power which the Seventeenth Amendment authorizes the legislature to delegate arguably requires the appointment be made with a definite time limit (as opposed to a time limit which can subsequently be shortened or lengthened). 

            Another problem with this reading of the Seventeenth Amendment is that it gives the state legislature the power to punish or reward a Senator based on performance in office.   If an appointed Senator votes in a way that displeases the legislature, it could move up the date of the special election.  Conversely, if the legislature approves of his or her votes, it could move back the special election.  It seems unlikely that the Seventeenth Amendment was intended to give the legislature such control. 

            Two other observations.  First, the historic practice of the states in carrying out the Seventeenth Amendment has some bearing here.  If there are examples of states changing the time of the special election after appointment, Madigan doesn’t cite them.  Second, the issue here is analogous to one that arose in the 2000 presidential election when it was argued that the Florida legislature could, under its Article II power to direct the manner in which presidential electors are appointed, change the law to take the election contest away from the courts and itself determine the correct slate of electors.   

            Rather than deal with the complexities of this issue, the Madigan opinion largely focuses on irrelevancies, such as whether Burris has a property interest in his Senate seat.  This may have a bearing on the question of whether or when Burris could challenge the legality of a special election, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the legality itself.  If Burris has no property interest in his Senate seat, neither does his colleague, Senator Durbin.  Clearly, however, the Illinois legislature could not constitutionally authorize a special election to replace Durbin before the end of his term.  

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.       

Is the Secretary’s Signature Necessary on the Credentials of a Senator Designate?

          Over at Concurring Opinions Brian Kalt is kicking himself for taking Senators Reid and Durbin at their word when they claimed that Senate rules require a Secretary of State to sign the credentials of a Senator Designate (a Senator who has been appointed).  As the Illinois Supreme Court pointed out in its opinion yesterday, it is at least questionable whether Senate rules or federal law impose any such requirement. 

            I have to go Professor Kalt one better and acknowledge that I reviewed the relevant provisions without spotting what now seems like an obvious flaw in the Reid/Durbin theory.  Senate Rule II begins as follows:  “The presentation of the credentials of Senators elect or of Senators designate and other questions of privilege shall always be in order . . . .”  The language of the rule thus distinguishes between “Senators elect” (i.e., those who have won an election) and “Senators designate” (i.e., those who have been appointed to the Senate).   

            Rule II then goes on to set forth recommended certification forms, including a form for certifying the appointment of a Senator.  The appointment certification form, like that for certifying an election, contains a signature line for the Secretary of State.  However, the rule does not require that any of these forms be used by the states.  As the rule states, “[t]he Secretary of the Senate shall send copies of the following recommended forms to the governor and secretary of state of each State wherein an election is about to take place or an appointment is to be made so that they may use such forms if they see fit.” (emphasis added). 

            While it was clear that the rule itself did not expressly require the Secretary’s signature, I misread Riddick’s Senate Procedure, the authoritative compilation of Senate rules and precedents, which recites the contents of the required election and appointment forms and then states that “the credentials of a Senator-elect must, under the law, be signed by the executive of the State and attested by the Secretary of State.”  The fact that the Secretary must attest to the credentials of a “Senator-elect” does not mean that he must attest to the credentials of a “Senator designate.”  Nor is there any reason to believe that Riddick would use the term “Senator-elect” to refer to both elected and appointed Senators because elsewhere Riddick refers to “the presentation and consideration of the credentials of Senators elect and Senators appointed to fill vacancies.”  Finally, Riddick’s reference to “under the law” presumably refers to 2 U.S.C. §§ 1a & 1b, which collectively provide that the Governor and Secretary of State of any state “from which any Senator has been chosen to certify his election, under the seal of the State, to the President of the Senate of the United States.”  It is arguable that the term “election” in the statute has a broader meaning that would encompass appointment, but it is certainly not clear.


            Having said this, I still think that Senate rules, as interpreted by the Senate itself, may require the Secretary’s signature on a certificate of appointment.  After all, Burris’s certificate of appointment was rejected by the Secretary of the Senate, presumably on advice of the Senate Parliamentarian among others, for lack of such signature.  The Senate has the authority to interpret its own rules and the courts should defer to the Senate’s interpretation of ambiguous rules.  At the end of the day, however, the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision turned not on whether the Senate had a rule requiring the Secretary’s signature, but whether such a rule could block the seating of an appointed Senator where “there is no question at all that the Governor did, in fact, make the appointment.”. The court held, correctly, that the answer to that question is no.

State of Confusion

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White explains the legalities of his refusal to sign the certification of Roland Burris’s appointment to the U.S. Senate: 

“My signature is not necessarily required for the Senate to place the gentleman in the seat,” White said Tuesday during a radio interview. “It carries a lot of weight, but my signature is mostly ceremonial, rather than it being a point of law.”

I trust that clears everything up.


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.

Rahm Emanuel’s Peculiar Resignation

            By letter dated January 2, 2009 (although apparently released earlier in the week), Rahm Emanuel informed Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich that “I am writing to resign my position as United States Representative from the Fifth Congressional District of Illinois, effective January 2, 2009.” 

            What is odd about this letter is that January 2 was the last full day of Emanuel’s term as Representative in the 110th Congress, which expired at noon on January 3.  As I pointed out previously, there was little reason for Emanuel to resign his seat in the 110th Congress since that seat could not be filled by a special election in the remaining time.  It is hard to understand why Emanuel would resign his seat one day before his term expired. 

            Even more surprising, the letter does not explicitly state that Emanuel is resigning his seat in the 111th Congress.  Resigning his position as Representative on January 2 would not, at least read literally, have any effect on Emanuel’s status in the 111th Congress.  The letter speaks of resigning only one “position” and, on January 2, his “position” was that of United States Representative in the 110th Congress.  With regard to the 111th Congress, Emanuel was not a “Representative” or a “Member,” but a “Member-elect.”  

Moreover, had Emanuel intended to refer to his seat in the 111th Congress, one would expect him to have used a less ambiguous term than “resignation.”  Technically, it is arguable that a Member-elect does not “resign” at all, but simply declines to take the oath or accept the seat.  See J. Chafetz, Leaving the House: The Constitutional Status of Resignation from the House of Representatives, 58 Duke L. J. 177, 188, 216-18 (2008) (discussing the distinction).  For example, when Newt Gingrich decided in November 1998 that he would leave Congress at the end of the 105th Congress, he informed the Governor of Georgia that he had “withdrawn” and would “not take the seat of congressman for the Sixth District of Georgia for the 106th Congress.” 

Emanuel clearly expects that everyone will understand his letter to be statement of intent not to take his seat in the 111th Congress.  Perhaps then his letter merely reflects sloppy drafting.  Or could he have deliberately set out to create an ambiguity with regard to his status in the 111th Congress?

Can the Senate Constitutionally Refuse to Seat Roland Burris?

            This article from ABC News highlights an issue I noted several weeks ago when it questions whether the Senate actually has the power to refuse to seat Roland Burris as a Senator from Illinois.  The Senate has (or at least has previously asserted) the power to refuse to seat an appointee if it finds that the appointment was the result of fraud or corruption.  In this case, however, the Senate evidently has no basis for such a finding.  As Jan Baran notes, the Senate could claim that there needs to be an investigation before seating Burris, and thereby stall things for awhile.  But in the absence of any evidence that Burris obtained the appointment through fraud or corruption, this would be a constitutionally questionable act. 

            Conceivably, Burris could challenge the Senate’s refusal to seat him through a lawsuit against the Senate officer responsible for paying him (as was done in Powell v. McCormack).  This case would be distinguishable from Powell because the latter involved the power to judge a Member’s qualifications, whereas the Burris case would involve the power to judge a Member’s “election.”  But it is far from clear that the use of the election-judging power to exclude an appointee would be exempt from judicial review, particularly in circumstances where there was no prima facie evidence that the appointment was invalid.

Is Emanuel Delaying his Resignation so that His Staff Can Find New Jobs?

          The Hill had a report yesterday regarding the “two hats” worn by Rahm Emanuel, namely (1) his presidential transition job in which he “is calling the shots for what will soon be the Obama White House” and (2) his job as a Member of Congress.  The first job is unpaid, although is evidently occupies most or all of his time; the second job is paid, although he is no longer performing it.  

            The story quotes an Emanuel spokeswoman as saying that the timing of his resignation has not been decided.  According to a source in another leadership office, “the understanding is that Emanuel has delayed resigning his House seat in order to allow his staff to look for jobs and keep getting salary and benefits.” 

            This is a peculiar explanation.  Under House rules and federal law, once a Representative resigns his seat, the Clerk of the House supervises the staff and manages the vacant office, and the staff remains on the payroll at the same salary (see 2 U.S.C. §92b).  Thus, it is not like Emanuel’s resignation would leave the staff immediately unemployed.


            It is true that once a special election occurs, many or all of the Emanuel staffers may be out of a job.  But even if Emanuel had resigned immediately, it is unlikely that a special election would have been held until early 2009.  For example, when Speaker Hastert (who was the Representative from Illinois who most recently vacated his seat) resigned on November 26, 2007, the special election to replace him was not until March 2008.  This would surely give the staff enough time to find other employment. 

            In short, it seems unlikely that Emanuel’s resignation timing is being driven by his staff’s need to find other employment.

Rahm Emanuel’s Resignation Calculus


           While most of America is worrying about losing a job, there is at least one person who has to worry about having too many.  That would be Rahm Emanuel, who currently holds at least three different titles and responsibilities.  He is a Member of the 110th Congress, representing the 5th Congressional District of Illinois.  He is a Member-Elect of the 111th Congress, having been re-elected in November to that seat.  He is President-elect Obama’s designee for White House Chief of Staff, a position he will formally assume sometime after January 20, 2009.  In the meantime, Emanuel presumably has significant responsibilities for the presidential transition.  

            Emanuel cannot serve as WH Chief of Staff and be a Member of Congress at the same time due to the Incompatible Offices Clause of the Constitution, which provides that “no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.”  This clause was designed, according to Federalist No. 76, to protect against “the danger of executive influence upon the legislative body.”   

To comply with the Incompatible Offices Clause, Emanuel will have to resign his seat in Congress before assuming the office of COS.  For purposes of this discussion, we will assume that there is nothing constitutionally, legally or ethically problematic with regard to the de facto authority that Emanuel exercises in the presidential transition (while at the same time serving in Congress). On that assumption, there is no particular obligation on Emanuel’s part to resign prior to January 20.   Instead, his decision on when to resign is presumably based on political and personal factors.

Emanuel’s replacement will be chosen in accordance with the House Vacancies Clause of the Constitution, which provides that “[w]hen vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.” Unlike Senate vacancies, which may filled temporarily by the Governor’s appointment, House vacancies can only be filled by special election. Article 25-7 of the Illinois Election Code provides that “[w]hen any vacancy shall occur in the office of representative in congress from this state more than 180 days before the next general election, the Governor shall issue a writ of election within 5 days after the occurrence of that vacancy to the county clerks of the several counties in the district where the vacancy exists, appointing a day within 115 days to hold a special election to fill such vacancy.”

Emanuel has not and probably will not resign his seat in the 110th Congress. This is understandable because it would have been virtually impossible for Illinois to hold a special election to fill his seat within the time remaining in the 110th Congress. Retaining his seat, in addition to allowing him to collect his congressional salary and use his congressional office and staff, permits Emanuel to continue to represent the people of his district during the remainder of the Congress. Given the extended lame duck session and the significant legislative issues that are still before the Congress, this decision makes perfect sense.

On the other hand, it is more puzzling as to why Emanuel has not yet resigned his seat in the 111th Congress. House precedents allow a Member-elect to resign his seat prior to start of the Congress for which he was elected. Thus, Emanuel could have resigned immediately upon deciding to take the COS position. He also could have resigned effective at a future date, e.g., January 20, 2009. Whether or not to treat these resignations as creating an immediate vacancy for purposes of the Illinois election code would have been an issue of Illinois law, and would have been a question for Governor Blagojevich to resolve. It is difficult to see, however, why Emanuel would delay his resignation unless he had some reason for postponing or, alternatively, for retaining control over the date of the special election.

Of course, this calculus changed when Governor Blagojevich was charged by federal authorities with various felonies, including allegedly attempting to sell Illinois’s vacant Senate seat. Now Emanuel presumably does not want the Governor to be issuing a writ of election for his seat if it can be avoided. Apart from the poor atmospherics of having the Governor involved in filling a congressional vacancy, Emanuel may be concerned that the Governor could manipulate the process by, for example, declaring the special election within an unreasonably short time.

As long as Blagojevich remains Governor, Emanuel has a conundrum. He could take the oath of office for the 111th Congress on January 6, and hope that Blagojevich is removed from the Governorship by January 20. Alternatively, he could not take the oath of office on January 6, but argue that the House should not consider the seat to be vacant due to the extraordinary circumstances presented. (He could then act as COS and yet continue to delay the special election indefinitely). This would be a somewhat far-fetched position, though no more so than the Illinois Attorney General’s attempt to have the courts declare the Governor incapable of carrying out his duties because of his legal troubles.

If, on the other hand, Blagojevich resigns in the next few days, one would expect that Emanuel would resign from the 111th Congress immediately thereafter, so as to allow the new Governor to call a special election and to ensure that the people of the 5th Congressional District of Illinois are without representation for as little time as possible.