Can You Expel a Sitting Senator?
In light of recent allegations, Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado this week said that if Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore “refuses to withdraw and wins, the Senate should vote to expel him, because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.” Meanwhile, Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, has been involved in a high profile corruption trial, with calls that he should resign or be expelled if convicted. Has anything this drastic ever happened before?
Yes, but not for a very long time. Once you’ve been voted into the Senate, it’s difficult to get you out.
REFUSING TO SEAT
Refusing to even seat a senator is very rare, but one example from over 100 years ago also involved Alabama.
In 1913, Alabama Senator Joseph F. Johnston died just a few months after the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The Amendment allowed for direct election of senators, as well as clarifying the role of the state in calling special elections. Alabama’s governor put up Representative Henry Clayton, but he soon resigned the appointment. This was followed by Frank Glass, a local newspaper editor. As Glass was about to be seated, senators worried that his appointment was illegitimate (similar fears had surrounded Clayton). As one senator said at the time, “I believe that the [17th] Amendment means exactly what it says. It is perfectly plain and unambiguous. It simply means from this time forward every senator of the United States must be elected by the people, unless the legislature of a state by express terms empowers the executive to make temporary appointments to fill vacancies. The legislature of the state of Alabama has not given such power to the executive.”
By a vote of 32-31, the rest of the Senate agreed and refused to seat Glass, leading to a special election in 1914 that brought in a new senator.
Since then there have been multiple attempts to not seat a senator—most famously Roland Burris in 2009, who was appointed by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich under the cloud of corruption charges (though he was ultimately let in). But in reality a refusal to seat a senator is unlikely to succeed.
In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. McCormack that as long as a duly elected representative met the age, citizenship, and residence requirements of the Constitution, they could not be excluded from the House. They could be expelled after taking their seat, but not excluded. Since it’s generally felt that this ruling extends to the Senate, it would likely not be possible to exclude an elected senator from their seat. But once that seat is taken, expulsion becomes a possibility.
The United States Constitution states that, “Each House may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” However, this is exceedingly rare.
The first time it happened was in the 1797 case of William Blount, one of the first two senators from Tennessee. According to the Senate, Blount had worked on a plan to take control of Spanish Florida and Louisiana and transfer them to the British with the help of Native Americans and frontiersmen. This plot was discovered and Blount was expelled, but not until he was impeached by the House of Representatives (the House has the sole power of impeachment, and it falls to the Senate to try the impeachment). The Senate ultimately decided not to try the impeachment, although whether that’s because senators believed that they themselves are unimpeachable or because Blount was unimpeachable because he had already been expelled and thus ceased being a senator is up for debate.
The next attempt at expulsion was in 1808, when Ohio’s John Smith was caught up in the Aaron Burr controversies. When it came to vote, the tally was 19 yeas for expulsion and 10 nays. Since the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority, Smith was saved from expulsion by one vote, although he would resign soon after.
The largest crop of expulsions was in 1861 and 1862, in regards to senators from southern states. As some senators were still officially members of the Senate, despite representing seceding states, it was felt that their status should be clarified by expulsion. As a result, 10 senators were expelled on July 11, 1861 (the expulsion order of one of the senators, William K. Sebastian of Arkansas, was later posthumously revoked after it was determined the charges “were as regards Sebastian merely a matter of suspicion and inference and wholly unfounded as to fact” and he didn’t commit conspiracy against the government). Later, a few more senators were expelled on the charge of supporting the rebellion. Including Sebastian, a grand total of 14 senators would be expelled during the Civil War. Since then, no senator has been expelled.
That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts. Cases since the Civil War have ended in either an exoneration or the senator leaving office before the vote. The most recent near-expulsion was Nevada Senator John Ensign in 2011 under accusations that he broke federal laws while attempting to cover up an affair. At the time, Senator Barbara Boxer of California said the case was “substantial enough to warrant the consideration of expulsion.” Ultimately, Ensign resigned.
It has been 155 years since the last senator was expelled. Whether—or when—that fact will change only time will tell.
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