By Bethany Jaeger
Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a legal opinion late last night that confirms the Illinois Republicans’ interpretation of the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: An appointment to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat is considered temporary, and the state legislature can set up an election to fill the seat currently held by U.S. Sen. Roland Burris.
According to her reading of the 17th Amendment, “although a state legislature may permit the state executive to fill a vacancy by appointment, that appointment is only ‘temporary.’” She said the General Assembly could reduce the U.S. Senate term without violating the senator’s right to due process of removal based on “cause.”
“A temporary appointee to the U.S. Senate has no right that prevents the General Assembly from passing legislation to enable the people to elect their U.S. senator.” In short, the opinion says nothing in the state or federal Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from changing the date of an election to choose a new U.S. senator.
Illinois House and Senate Republicans took that as a cue to call for another special election. “We do, in fact, have an opportunity legally and legitimately to have a special election and let people fill the Senate seat and stop the embarrassment that is the Roland Burris appointment,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican sponsoring a measure, SB 285, to move the primary election date to April 7 and the general election to May 26.
Senate Democrats also are sponsoring their own version of a special election bill, SB 1271, which is scheduled to be heard in a committee this afternoon.
If the Republican version were approved, the election to replace now U.S. Sen. Roland Burris would be on the same dates as local elections and, therefore, save money, Murphy said. Democrats also cited those two dates in December, when the party initially supported the idea of holding a special election to fill the seat vacated by President Barack Obama.
Murphy said Democrats, which have estimated the cost of a special election at more than $40 million, are motivated by politics, not financial concerns. “I think it’s a little ironic that the people who spent us into a $9 billion hole are now going to get a little worried about $15 [million] to $25 million on an issue as important as this.”
He said the state budget still allots more than $15 million for member initiatives this fiscal year. If the General Assembly zeroed out those lines, he said the money could be used to help local governments with the cost of holding a special election. “So sure, it’s a concern but one that we can address if our priorities are right.”
Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, also said the price tag of a special election doesn’t cost as much as public cynicism. “What’s been the cost of the loss of confidence in this state? What’s the cost of people saying, ‘Why bother to vote? It doesn’t make any difference.’ Haven’t we learned anything from the last two or three years?”
The timing, however, would condense the process of finding candidates, circulating petitions and educating voters. Murphy said he’s less concerned about the timing than he is about Burris remaining in office until 2011. “Every time we think we can’t possibly get embarrassed one more time, we do.”
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times reports that Burris’ son received a job with the Blagojevich Administration in September, the month before the governor’s brother called Roland Burris for fundraising help, according to Burris’ February affidavit to the special House committee that recommended Blagojevich’s impeachment.