Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Roland Burris Dilemma - State’s Rights v. Congressional Leader’s Preferences

By Syreeta L. McNeal, CPA, JD

Recently, there has been a stimulating debate over whether Illinois’s U. S. Senator designate, Roland Burris, is entitled to fill the Illinois Junior Senate seat after embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s appointment on December 30, 2008. Majority Senate Leader, Harry Reid, is stating that Illinois Governor Blagojevich’s appointment is tainted and is not valid because of Blagojevich’s recent arrest and federal complaint brought by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). With all due respect to the Honorable Harry Reid, his argument is more political than legal and shows his preferences in trying to determine the outcome of who should fill the Illinois Senate seat. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Reid, who is a lawyer, should know that Burris is legally entitled to be seated as a U. S. Senator from the state of Illinois.

U. S. Constitution Denotes Senate Appointments as a State Right

The U. S. Constitution denotes the senate appointment after a vacancy as a specific state right not one to be manipulated by congressional leaders. The specific constitutional provision that addresses the replacement of vacancies in the U. S. Senate is the 17th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. 17th Amendment, Clause 2 states “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.”[1] This provision is important because it specifically grants the authority of senate appointments after vacancies in the hands of the states, not Congress.

Amendment XVII has backing because of another constitutional provision, Article V. Article V of the U. S. Constitution states “….Amendments…. shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures…. or by Conventions.”[2] The importance of Article V is that its gives the Amendments equal weight of importance to the Articles of the Constitution. Therefore, if an Amendment is ratified and specifically changes or narrows the scope of another provision in the Constitution, then the effect of any Amendment is binding as part of the Constitution.

An example of how Article V of the U. S. Constitution works is with the phrase “three fifths of all other persons” as mentioned in Article I.[3] In colonial times, three fifths of all other persons meant black slaves. What the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments did was to remove the impact of blacks being classified as three fifths of a person. The same logic applies with 17th Amendment by it specifically tailoring the senate appointment after vacancies to be done by the states.

For Burris, Illinois Governor Blagojevich was still the formal governor of the state of Illinois on December 30, 2008. The Illinois legislature did not remove Blagojevich prior to the Burris appointment nor change the Illinois Constitution to allow a special election to determine the U. S. Senator appointment after the vacancy. Also, Illinois Governor Blagojevich did not resign his post. So, the Burris appointment is valid under the 17th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution.

Courts will likely Validate the Burris Appointment

For those students entering law school, you will likely get bombarded with the 1803 U. S. Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison, in Constitutional Law.[4] Well, the Burris appointment has legal backing because of this case. To summarize the facts of the case, outgoing President John Adams appointed William Marbury as justice of the peace for the District of Columbia.[5] President Adams signed the commission letter and affixed the seal of the U. S. Presidency and delivered it to Secretary of State James Madison for delivery.[6] With incoming President William Jefferson, Secretary of State Madison refused to deliver the commission letter of appointment to Marbury and as a result Marbury commenced a writ of mandamus to compel Secretary of State Madison to deliver President Adams’ commission letter for the appointment.[7]

The Supreme Court held that the appointment by President Adams and his signature on the commission letter is all that was needed to validate the appointment of Marbury as justice of the peace for the District of Columbia.[8] Also, the Court held that “with commission being signed, the subsequent duty of the secretary of state is prescribed by law, and not to be guided by the will of the president. He is to affix the seal of the United States to the commission, and is to record it.”[9]

Now, Marbury v. Madison is still good law. To follow the same logic as presented in the Burris appointment, Illinois Governor Blagojevich appointed Burris and signed the commission letter for the appointment. This is all that was needed to validate the act. The Illinois State Supreme Court has already ruled that the Burris appointment is valid and neither Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White nor any other state official is needed to certify the Burris appointment.[10] The U. S. Supreme Court, applying Marbury v. Madison, will likely uphold the Burris appointment to the Illinois Senate seat as well.

Similar to Secretary of State Madison, Majority Senate Leader Harry Reid is using games to delay or ignore the legal Burris appointment by keeping Burris out of the Senate swearing in ceremony due to the fact that he does not have the signature of the Illinois Secretary of State. However, any lawyer should know that this gamesmanship tactic will be to no avail because Burris has U. S. Supreme Court case law in Marbury v. Madison and the 17th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution to validate his Illinois Senate seat appointment.

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[1] U.S. Const. amend. XVII, cl. 2.
[2] U.S. Const. art. V.
[3] U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 3.
[4] See Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).
[5] Id. at 138.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id. at 157.
[9] Id. at 158.
[10] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a52815d4-de26-11dd-8372-000077b07658.html?nclick_check=1