The Illinois Senate Seat
Let the voters decide.

Friday, December 12, 2008

THE ALLEGATIONS against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich are malodorous. A jury will ultimately decide whether he is guilty of trying to sell the Senate seat once occupied by President-elect Barack Obama. For now, though, he retains the power to appoint someone to fill that vacant seat. We hope he listens to the advice of state elected officials, including his lieutenant governor, the entire Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate and Mr. Obama himself and chooses not to exercise that power. No self-respecting politician would accept such a tainted prize from Mr. Blagojevich. The way out is for the state legislature to change Illinois law and give voters the opportunity to select Mr. Obama's replacement through a special election.

Even under normal circumstances, gubernatorial appointments to the Senate are undemocratic and subject to abuse. At times, Senate seats have been treated as heirlooms. When then-Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) became governor of Alaska in 2002, he used his new power to appoint his daughter Lisa to complete his term. She won election in her own right in 2004. Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s Delaware Senate seat has been given to a former staffer who, it is reportedly understood, will clear out in time to allow Mr. Biden's son to run for a full term. There's fevered speculation that New York Gov. David A. Paterson could tap Caroline Kennedy to replace Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton upon Ms. Clinton's confirmation as secretary of state and thus assume a post once held by Ms. Kennedy's uncle Robert F. Kennedy.

At other times, senators have been denied consideration for other jobs because a governor of the "wrong" party would get to fill their seats. The Massachusetts legislature stripped its governor of the power to appoint -- but not until its Democratic majority had become alarmed that Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would choose a successor to Sen. John F. Kerry if Mr. Kerry were elected president in 2004. You can make a very good case that a Republican governor shouldn't be able to replace an elected Democrat with a Republican -- but that's just a subset of a broader question: Why should any governor get to substitute his or her will for that of the voters?

Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has the only plausible answer we've heard to that question. A special election could take months, leaving Illinois without its duly allotted representation. That's unfair at any time but could be disastrous, as Mr. Ornstein has pointed out, if a catastrophe in Washington (such as a terrorist attack) wiped out the entire Congress. For continuity of government, he argues, it would be better if governors could appoint senators immediately in such a situation. We think he is right to keep raising the alarm on this issue, which most people would rather not think about. But we also think there may be ways to provide for continuity in crises without slighting democracy at all other times. The people of Illinois deserve to have their voices heard -- through a senator chosen by them at the ballot box.

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