Burris was blocked from entering the Senate on Tuesday because his credentials are invalid – his appointment letter from Blagojevich was not signed by the Illinois Secretary of State. This is a technicality. The real issue is whether the Senate has the Constitutional authority to block Burris from its halls – an issue whose history, ironically, lies with the first American Black ever elected to Congress, Adam Clayton Powell.
Adam Clayton Powell is the legendary NY Congressman from Harlem. A leading figure during his tenure in the House, he was the long-time chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, and spearheaded the passing of the minimum wage bill. He has been called “the blueprint for what all black elected officials should be: bold and passionate.”
In 1967, after allegations of corruption, the House voted 307 to 116 to exclude him from his elected seat, and he was kicked out. Powell made it back in however, by winning the special election to fill the vacancy caused by his own exclusion. He then took his case to the Supreme Court and sued for the repayment he had been denied after his exclusion, asserting that he was unlawfully ejected from his lawful position as a US congressman.
In that case, Powell v. McCormack, the Supreme Court interpreted the House’s authority to exclude Powell by looking at the Constitutional clause giving them the power to be the “judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members.”
It held that “The House is without power to exclude a member-elect who meets the Constitutional requirements for membership.” The Constitutional requirements for holding the Senate seat are: be 30 years old, be a citizen of the US for at least nine years, and be resident of the state that you would represent. Burris meets these requirements.
In Powell's case, the congressman was already elected into the House - whereas Mr. Burris was appointed by the Governor, a governor tainted by fraud. The Supreme Court's rule on the House's authority to exclude an elected official is clear: if he meets the qualifications, he's in. But there is no clear guideline in the Senate's authority to exclude an appointed official. That is the issue that will be settled in the Supreme Court. Specifically, the issue with Burris is going to be whether the considerable taint associated with his appointment is a reasonable justification for his exclusion.
Politics and live wires rarely mix well. And right now, it seems this is a live wire for the U.S. Senate. I’m amazed, however, in the skillful way that Mr. Burris has managed to get key Senate Democrats to huddle just close enough to that wire where someone may get shocked…