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Supreme Court steers clear of case involving Obama Senate seat

The Supreme Court left in place an appeals-court ruling that then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 2008 appointment of Roland Burris to the US Senate violated an often-overlooked clause in the 17th Amendment.

By Staff writer / June 6, 2011

Roland Burris (D) of Illinois, shown in Decatur, Ill., in 2009, was appointed to the Senate by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was shortly thereafter impeached and removed from office. Senator Burris served for two years before the Seventh Circuit ruled that the Constitution's 17th Amendment requires a special election – not a governor's appointment – must fill any vacant Senate seat.

Stephen Haas / Decatur Herald & Review / AP



The US Supreme Court on Monday refused to enter a legal dispute over whether Illinois officials complied with the Constitution’s 17th Amendment when they filled the US Senate seat left vacant by President Obama.

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In declining to take up appeals filed by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and former Sen. Roland Burris (D), the high court let stand a federal appeals court’s decision that the senate-vacancy procedure in Illinois was unconstitutional.

Illinois law empowered the governor to appoint a replacement to serve the remainder of any vacant US Senate term. But a three-judge panel of the Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled in June 2010 that Illinois’ procedure was unconstitutional under the 17th Amendment unless the state also held a special election.

Nineteen states have laws similar to the Illinois measure, relying exclusively on appointments rather than special elections to fill senate vacancies. And the decision could have a broader effect. According to one analysis, if applied nationally, the appeals court’s decision would cast constitutional doubt on the Senate-vacancy procedures currently used by 42 states.

A friend of the court brief, filed in the case by the Louisiana attorney general’s office, said the Seventh Circuit ruling would render unconstitutional the temporary, appointed terms of 34 senators – including Walter Mondale (D) of Minnesota in 1964, George Mitchell (D) of Maine in 1980, Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island in 1999, Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska in 2002, Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey in 2006, Michael Bennet (D) of Colorado in 2009, and George LeMieux (R) of Florida in 2009.

Illinois scandal

Mr. Obama’s former US Senate seat has engendered an extraordinary level of controversy. In addition to the constitutional dispute over proper replacement procedures, it is also at the center of an ongoing corruption trial in federal court in Chicago.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is accused of attempting to trade his authority to fill the vacant Senate seat in exchange for a prestigious post in the Obama administration or a pledge of $1.5 million in campaign contributions.


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