One of the axioms of American democracy is that we are a government of laws, not of men. We are supposed to follow the requirements of our Constitution and statutes even when they yield results we dont like -- say, freeing a person who appears guilty. We are about to find out if Democrats in the U.S. Senate want to follow the rule of law or indulge their own preferences.
The dilemma arises because of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevichs decision to appoint a replacement, Roland Burris, for the seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama. I have no desire to be represented in Washington by Roland Burris, but then, I have no desire to be represented in Springfield by Blagojevich. The truth, though, is that both were chosen by legitimate, democratic procedures, and until they are removed by legitimate, democratic procedures, we -- and the Senate -- have an obligation to put up with them.
Given his pending indictment and impeachment, it took a lot of gall for the governor to act. But the facts remain: He is the governor, and state law confers on him the unchecked authority (and, by implication, the responsibility) to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat when the term has less than two years to run.
The Illinois General Assembly could have acted years ago to require special elections in such circumstances, or it could have acted last month. But it didnt. Which means Blagojevich has every bit as much right to name a successor as he does to veto legislation, administer the budget and sleep in the governors mansion.
Democratic senators find these facts inconvenient. So, in a show of unity, they say they will refuse to let Burris take his seat. In the event he shows up on Capitol Hill to begin his new job, The Chicago Tribune has reported, "armed police officers stand ready to bar him from the Senate floor."
The senators insist they may shut the door to Burris because the U.S. Constitution says, "Each house shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members." But that doesnt mean the right to exclude anyone they wish. If it did, a Democratic Senate would be perfectly entitled to refuse to admit any Republican, and vice versa.
What it means is that the Senate may ensure members meet the requirements established in the Constitution. Each senator is supposed to be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least nine years and a resident of the state he or she represents.