Tainted Choice in Illinois
Senate appointee Roland Burris has real credentials -- but there's a larger issue at stake.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"PLEASE DON'T allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man," Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said yesterday in announcing his choice to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the election of Barack Obama. Unfortunately, there is no avoiding such a taint. Mr. Blagojevich faces criminal charges of seeking personal gain in making the Senate appointment. Under such circumstances, no one selected by Mr. Blagojevich can take the office with any legitimacy. The governor's audacity -- in refusing to step down in the face of ugly wiretap transcripts, in proceeding with the appointment despite the pending criminal charges and an ongoing impeachment proceeding -- cannot be allowed to stand.

Mr. Blagojevich's chosen candidate, former Illinois attorney general Roland W. Burris, has strong credentials. He was the state's first African American attorney general and the first African American to win statewide office, as comptroller; he has not been implicated in the state's seemingly ever-widening political corruption scandal. If, as Chicago newspapers reported, Mr. Burris stepped up his lobbying for the Senate seat after Mr. Blagojevich's arrest, that reflects poorly on his fitness for the post. The introduction of racial politics into this mix was similarly disappointing. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) spoke at the announcement yesterday about the importance of having an African American senator and warned that people should not "hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointor."

At bottom, however, as the Senate Democratic leadership said in a statement, "this is not about Mr. Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat." The statement, preemptively issued even before the formal announcement of Mr. Burris's selection, repeated the Democrats' position that a Blagojevich appointee "will not be seated by the Democratic caucus." President-elect Obama later echoed their view. There is a serious legal question, however, about whether the Senate can refuse to seat Mr. Burris. The Supreme Court's 1969 ruling in the case of Adam Clayton Powell suggests that Congress is empowered only to determine whether a particular representative meets the technical constitutional qualifications for the job.

The best solution remains the one that we urged at the outset of this mess: a special election. Unfortunately, the Democrat-dominated Illinois General Assembly dropped this approach because of concerns that Mr. Obama's seat might end up in Republican hands. The General Assembly should reconsider. Its responsibility is making certain that the citizens of Illinois have their full complement of senators -- not making certain that both are Democrats.

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