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Monday, August 5, 2013

Filling U.S. Senate Vacancies: Perspectives and Contemporary Developments

Thomas H. Neale
Specialist in American National Government

United States Senators serve a term of six years. Vacancies occur when an incumbent Senator leaves office prematurely for any reason; they may be caused by death or resignation of the incumbent, by expulsion or declination (refusal to serve), or by refusal of the Senate to seat a Senator-elect or -designate.

This report provides information on current vacancies in the Senate, the constitutional origins of the Senate vacancy clause, the appointment process by which most vacancies are filled, and related contemporary issues. It will be revised and updated to reflect current developments in vacancies, appointments, and special elections.

Since December 2012, four vacancies have occurred in the Senate. They are identified below in alphabetical order by state.

In Hawaii, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who was also President pro tempore of the Senate, died on December 17, 2012. Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie appointed Lieutenant Governor Brian E. Schatz to serve in his place until the vacancy is filled by a special election in 2014. Senator Schatz was sworn in on December 27, 2012. The winner of the special election will serve until the term expires in 2017.

In Massachusetts, Senator John F. Kerry resigned from the Senate on February 1, 2013, to assume the office of U.S. Secretary of State. The vacancy was filled by expedited special election procedures enacted in connection with the 2009 death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. On January 30, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announced the appointment of William (Mo) Cowan, to serve until the special election, which was scheduled for June 25. Senator Cowan was sworn in on February 7 and served until the winner of the special election was sworn in. Representative Edward J. Markey won the special election; he was sworn in on July 16, and will serve for the balance of the term, which expires in 2015.

In New Jersey, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg died June 3, 2013. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie set a special primary election for August 13, and a special general election for October 16. On June 6, the governor announced his appointment of New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa to fill the vacancy and serve until the special general election is held. The winner of the special election will serve for the balance of the term, which expires in 2015.

In South Carolina, Senator Jim DeMint resigned from the Senate on January 1, 2013, to assume the presidency of The Heritage Foundation. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley appointed Representative Tim Scott to serve in his place until the vacancy is filled by a special election in 2014. Senator Scott was sworn in on January 3. The winner of the special election will serve until the term expires in 2017.

The use of temporary appointments to fill Senate vacancies is an original provision of the U.S. Constitution, found in Article I, Section 3, clause 2. The practice was revised in 1913 by the 17
th Amendment, which provided for direct popular election of Senators, replacing election by state legislatures; it specifically directed state governors to “issue writs of election to fill such vacancies.” The amendment also preserved the appointment option by authorizing state legislatures to empower governors to make temporary appointments pending a special election.”

Since 1913, most states have exercised this option, authorizing their governors to fill Senate vacancies by temporary appointments. Some, however, limit the governor’s power: appointed Senators in Arizona must be of the same political party as the prior incumbent, while in Hawaii, Utah, and Wyoming, the governor must choose a replacement from names submitted by the prior incumbent’s party. In Connecticut and Oklahoma, the governor may make a temporary appointment in limited circumstances, and Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin require vacancies to be filled only by special election.

As a result of controversies that arose concerning appointments to Senate vacancies following the 2008 presidential election, legislation and a constitutional amendment that would have required all Senate vacancies to be filled by special election were introduced in the 111
th Congress. None of these measures reached the floor of either chamber, however, and no comparable measures have been introduced since that time.

Since 2009, three states have substantially modified their vacancy procedures. Connecticut significantly restricted the governor’s appointment power in such instances; Rhode Island eliminated it entirely, requiring that all future Senate vacancies be filled by special election; and Massachusetts modified its election-only requirement to reinstate gubernatorial appointment within an expedited special election process.

Date of Report: July 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R40421
Price: $29.95

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