Reid's Thin Reed Bends


In an interview with NBC's David Gregory on Meet the Press yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted "there's clearly legal authority for us to do whatever we want to" when Roland Burris, Illinois Gov. Rod Blogojevich's choice to replace Barack Obama, tries to claim his seat. At the same time, Reid left room for a deal that would allow Burris to serve. Here is his rationale for resisting the appointment:

Blagojevich obviously is a corrupt individual. I think that's pretty clear. And the reason that he's done what he's done is to divert attention from the arrest that was just made of him and the indictment which will be coming in a few days, according to the U.S. attorney in Illinois. That's why President-elect Obama agreed with us that Mr. Burris is tainted. Not as a result of anything that he's done wrong. There's—I don't know a thing wrong with Mr. Burris.

Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution says, "Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members." The Supreme Court has ruled that in this context "qualifications" are the criteria laid out by the Constitution itself—e.g., that a senator be at least 30 years old and a U.S. citizen for at least nine years. In any event, Reid concedes there's nothing wrong with Burris' personal qualifications; according to Reid, it's Burris' appointment by a governor accused of corruption that's problematic. Reid is arguing that the Senate has a right to judge the legitimacy of Burris' appointment, just as it would have the right to judge the legitimacy of another senator's election. Yet if Burris himself is clean, as Gregory pointed out, "there's nothing suggesting that the appointment was at all illegal" (that it was the result of a bribe, for example).

Perhaps recognizing that his position is legally untenable, Reid declined to say that he would press it in court and suggested that Burris might be allowed to serve after all:

Gregory: But there sounds to me like there may be some room here to negotiate and actually seat Burris?

Reid: Hey, listen, David, I'm an old trial lawyer. There's always room to negotiate.

Gregory: All right, so you're not saying no completely that he won't serve?

Reid: That's right.

Last week I said the rule of law demands that Burris be permitted to take his seat. In his column today, Steve Chapman, no fan of Burris or Blagojevich, fleshes out that argument.