Monday, January 5, 2009

Manhattan Provides Historical Precedent for Burris

US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the Governor of Illinois prior to that Governor's legal troubles and asked that the Governor not appoint three Black elected officials to the Senate who were rumored to be under consideration by the Governor. Reid gave the Governor only white candidates to choose from, including one who had recently lost and election.,harry-reid-blagojevich-jesse-jackson-010209.article Leaving aside how insulting it is to Black Americans to learn that Harry Reid thinks it is important that no Black person is selected by the Illinois Governor to join the US Senate (which currently has no Black members), we are dismayed that Harry Reid is not now seeking forgiveness and backing the Black man selected by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. We are left wondering why Harry Reid is focused on ensuring that no Black Americans are part of the US Senate. We are hoping that New York's Senators will guide Harry Reid to a less self-destructive position.

Reid, has stated that he will block the seating of the recently appointed Senate-designee Roland Burris as the next Senator from the State of Illinois. Yet, the controversy Reid and his supporters are creating was settled 40 years ago in a Supreme Court Case focused on a larger-than-life Congressman from right here in Upper Manhattan.

As New Yorkers, we have two Senators with law degrees from first class institutions (Senator Schumer graduated from Harvard Law School, and Senator Clinton graduated from Yale Law School, where the author of this blog completed his legal education approximately 25 years after Senator Clinton), and we can hope that they will encourage Reid to change his position and avoid the humiliation he seems to be courting. Ironically, President-Elect Obama also attended a top-notch law school (Schumer's Harvard), but he has expressed his full support for the Reid position. In doing so, Obama is opposing Supreme Court precedent and (hopefully unintentionally) conspiring with those determined to keep the Senate free of African Americans.

Historical Context

The most relevant Supreme Court case giving us guidance into the Roland Burris situation in 2009 is the 1969 case of Powell v. McCormack. The "Powell" in Powell v. McCormack is Adam Clayton Powell, the legendary Harlem Congressman. In 1967, he was denied his seat in the House of Representatives by a majority vote after being re-elected to his seat in the 1966 elections. The Speaker of the House (McCormack) based the denial on allegations of corruption against Congressman Powell, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee at the time.

The Supreme Court decided that the House could only deny a seat to an elected member who failed to meet the qualifications listed in the Constitution (25 years of age, resident of the state of New York, and a citizen of the United States for at least seven years - in the case of the Senate, it is 30 years of age and nine years of citizenship). Powell could have been seated and then expelled by a two-thirds vote.

As we look at the Burris case, we fail to see any element of the situation that distinguishes it from the Supreme Court's decision in Powell v. McCormack, and Harry Reid has failed to suggest any reason that it would end differently. Burris is 71 years old and has been a US Citizen since birth. He has been a resident of Illinois virtually every moment since birth as well. Moreover, Roland Burris has an essentially spotless record as an ethical public servant, and he has a long and respectable record as an elected official representing all of the people of Illinois. We have no reason to believe that he will not be an effective Senator for those same people, and Harry Reid has no basis to prevent Roland Burris from becoming a Senator.

History of Black Senators

The US Senate has a poor record with regard to Black members. Since Reconstruction, only 3 Black Senators have taken their place in the Senate chamber. Two of them were from Illinois, and both of those were elected since 1990 (an one of those two has been elected President of the United States). Roland Burris would be the fourth Black Senator since Reconstruction, and the third from Illinois, but he would be the only Black member of the Senate. The US Senate currently has no Black members. It has never had more than one Black Senator at any time since Reconstruction, and it has had zero Black Senators during the vast majority of Congresses since Reconstruction. When the Congressional Black Caucus challenged the election of George W. Bush in 2000, they were unable to even force a debate on the legitimacy of his election because no Senator would rise in support of their protest. There were no Black Senators in 2000, just as there are none today. Roland Burris, by becoming the only Black member of the US Senate, would play a huge role in giving the American People a reason to believe that the US Senate represents all of the people.

The first Black member of the US Senate was elected by the State Legislature of Mississippi during reconstruction. Hiram Rhodes Revels had to fight his way into the Senate. The Republicans had won the Civil War and abolished Slavery, and the Democrats were determined to keep this first Black member out of the Senate. The Democrats argued that, based on Plessy v. Ferguson, no Black person in the United States was a citizen until the ratification of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. Given the requirement of nine years of citizenship, Revels would not have qualified to be a Senator in 1870, when he was elected. The Republicans controlled the Senate and seated Revels (some Republicans argued that because he had some white ancestry, he was a citizen before the ratification of the 14th Amendment), making him the first Black US Senator.

Roland Burris would be an excellent addition to the very short list of Black US Senators - Revels, Blanche Bruce, Ed Brooke, Carol Moseley Braun, and Barack Obama.

Burris Preferable to Scalia

With no Black members of the US Senate, Harry Reid wants to exclude the Black man coming from Illinois to serve in the US Senate, but Harry Reid has stated that he'd support Antonin Scalia for Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.

We'd recommend that Senator Reid develop greater discomfort with Scalia obtaining greater power and influence while embracing the concept of having Roland Burris, a Black American, serve along side Senator Reid in the US Senate.

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