Authority of the Senate to Exclude and Not Seat a Senator-Elect or Senator-Designate
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
This report is intended to provide a brief legal analysis of the authority to exclude, that is, to
refuse by majority vote to seat, a Senator-elect or Senator-designate who presents credentials
from the proper officials of a state. The questions arise in the context of both a contested Senate
election, as well as an appointment by a governor to fill a Senate vacancy.
This report discusses and analyzes the constitutional and legal issues regarding Senate authority
in this area. A detailed discussion of procedural practices and options has been prepared by
Elizabeth Rybicki, Analyst on the Congress and the Legislative Process, Government and Finance
Under Article I, Section 5, clause 1 of the Constitution, each house of Congress is granted the
express authority to judge the “elections,” the “returns,” and the “qualifications” of its own
Members. This explicit delegation in the Constitution grants the Senate broad authority to make
the final determination concerning not only the narrow constitutional “qualifications” of a
Member-elect or Member-designate (age, citizenship, and inhabitancy in the state from which
chosen), but also the legitimacy and validity of the “election” or selection process of those
presenting “credentials” (the official “return” from the state) to the Senate.
When judging “qualifications,” the Supreme Court in the 1969 decision of Powell v. McCormack,
395 U.S. 486 (1969), found that the House (and the Senate) is limited to an examination of the
three standing qualifications to office (and any potential “disqualifications,” such as under the
Fourteenth Amendment). The Court there noted that anyone meeting those qualifications would
have to be seated, and not excluded, if such person were “duly” elected, selected, or chosen. 395
U.S. at 522.
Under the Powell decision and rationale, and under the express constitutional grant of authority,
the Senate (and House) may, in addition to examining “qualifications” of Members-elect,
examine the “elections” and “returns” of their own Members, that is, whether an individual
presenting valid credentials has been “duly” chosen. A few years after the Powell decision, the
Supreme Court in Roudebush v. Hartke, 405 U.S. 15 (1972), clearly affirmed the right of the
Senate to make the final and conclusive determination concerning the election process and
seating of its own Members. In the case of contests or challenges properly raised concerning the
election or selection of a Senator, the Court affirmed the constitutional authority for “an
independent evaluation by the Senate” of the selection of those presenting themselves for
membership. 405 U.S. at 25-26.
The various internal examinations and inquiries by the Senate of the selection of an individual
who has been appointed by a governor of a state have been considered and treated as elections
cases; and on numerous occasions in the past the Senate has considered the legality or validity of
a gubernatorial selection. Additionally, the Senate has from time-to-time examined the election or
selection process (prior to the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, Senators were
selected by state legislatures) to see if corruption or bribery has so tainted the process as to call
into question its validity.
Introduc tion ............................................................................................................................... 1
Qualif ications ............................................................................................................................ 2
Elections and Returns................................................................................................................3
Senate Precedents and Practice.................................................................................................4
Exclusion v. Expulsion..............................................................................................................5
Author Contact Information............................................................................................................6
The Constitution expressly grants to each house of Congress the authority to “be the Judge of the 1
Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.” This express constitutional
delegation gives the Senate broad authority to judge and to make the final determination
concerning not only the narrow constitutional “qualifications” of a Member-elect or Member-
designate, but also the legitimacy of the “election” or selection process of those presenting 2
“credentials” to the Senate.
As stated by a noted parliamentary authority, the final and exclusive right to determine
membership in a democratically elected legislature “is so essential to the free election and
independent existence of a legislative assembly, that it may be regarded as a necessary incident to 3
every body of that description, which emanates directly from the people.” In his historic work,
Commentaries on the Constitution, Justice Joseph Story analyzed the placing of the power and
final authority to determine membership within each house of Congress:
It is obvious that a power must be lodged somewhere to judge of the elections, returns, and
qualifications of the members of each house composing the legislature; for otherwise there
could be no certainty as to who were legitimately chosen members, and any intruder or
usurper might claim a seat, and thus trample upon the rights and privileges and liberties of
the people. ... If lodged in any other, than the legislative body itself, its independence, its 4
purity and even its existence and action may be destroyed, or put into imminent danger.
The process of examination and inquiry within the Senate is generally initiated at the occasion of
the swearing-in of the Senator-elect or Senator-designate by an objection or question to the
seating of that individual raised by another Senator, or from a petition submitted to the Senate 5
(often, in the case of a contested election, by the opposing candidate). The presentation of
“credentials” or a certificate of election from a governor and secretary of state (that is, the official 6
“return”), is considered to be prima facie evidence that the person holding those credentials is 7
entitled to the seat, subject to the final determination of the Senate. A Member-elect or Member-
Article I, Section 5, clause 1.
2Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969) (qualifications); Roudebush v. Hartke, 405 U.S. 15 (1972); Barry v.
United States ex rel. Cunningham, 279 U.S. 597 (1929); and Reed v. County Commissioners, 277 U.S. 376, 388 (1928)
(elections and returns). For a compilation and description of the Senate precedents and cases concerning qualifications,
elections, and returns, see Butler and Wolff, Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and
Censure Cases from 1793 to 1990, S.Doc. 103-33, (1995), [hereafter Senate Election Cases].
3 Luther Stearns Cushing, Law and Practice of Legislative Assemblies in the United States, pp. 54-55 (1856).
4 Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Volume II, § 831, at pp. 294-295 (1833).
5 Senate Legal Counsel, Contested Election Cases, at 9-11 (October 2006) [hereinafter Senate Contested Election
6 It appears that in 18th and 19th century parlance the term “return” indicates the certificate of election or credentials
transmitted on behalf of the candidate certified by the state as being authorized to hold the seat and perform the duties
of office: “The purpose of a return is to authenticate the election in such a manner, as to enable the persons elected to
take upon themselves their official functions. In this country, the object is effected by means of certificates of elections
(also called returns) under the hands of the returning officers, either given to the persons elected, or sent to some
appropriate department of the government.” Cushing, Elements of the Law and Practice of Legislative Assemblies in
the United States, at § 136, p. 50 (1856).
7 Senate Contested Election Cases, at 11-14 ; see discussion of 1857 and 1794 Senate precedents in 1 Hinds’
Precedents of the House of Representatives, § 534, pp. 693-694: “... the credential, being prima facie evidence, was
liable to be rebutted at any stage.”
designate presenting such credentials, however, is not a “Member of Congress” until that person 8
is sworn in and seated by the relevant house. Upon a challenge, petition, or express request from
a committee, objecting to the swearing-in and seating of a particular individual, the matter of the
election and credentials of a Senator-elect or Senator-designate may be referred to the committee
of jurisdiction, which in the recent past has been the Senate Committee on Rules and 9
Administration. Although it has been noted that it has been the “more common practice” in
recent years in the case of a certified Senator-elect or Senator-designate who is challenged, to
swear such person in “without prejudice” during the pendency of committee and Senate 10
consideration of the matter, the Senate has in the past also refused to swear in and seat 11
individuals, pending Senate resolution of the matter, even though credentials were presented.
One of the inquiries and judgments that the Senate may make concerning an individual presenting
himself or herself for membership is an examination of that person’s “qualifications” for office.
Although there had been precedent in the past for the Senate to look at a Senator-elect’s or
Senator-designate’s “fitness for office” or “moral character” in judging the qualifications of such
individual to be seated in the Senate, the extent of the authority of the Senate to judge
“qualifications” under Article I, Section 5, clause 1, was expressly and narrowly delineated by the 12
Supreme Court in the case of Powell v. McCormack in 1969. The Supreme Court in that case
stated that “in judging the qualifications of its members Congress is limited to the standing 13
qualifications prescribed in the Constitution,” that is, the Member-elect’s age, citizenship, and 14
inhabitancy in the state from which elected. As explained in Deschler’s Precedents:
The [Powell] decision apparently precludes the practice of the House or Senate, followed on
numerous occasions during the 19th and 20th centuries, of excluding Members-elect for 15
prior criminal, immoral, or disloyal conduct.
Riddick and Fruman, Riddick’s Senate Procedure: Precedents and Practices, “Credentials and Oath of Office,”
S.Doc. 101-28, at 704, 708-710 [hereafter Riddick’s Senate Procedure]; Deschler’s Precedents of the U.S. House of
Representatives , Ch. 2, § 3, p. 98, and § 6, pp. 131-132 [hereinafter Deschler’s Precedents].
9 See referral of election contest of Durkin v. Wyman, 121 Congressional Record 1495 (1975); contest of Senator
Landrieu election, 143 Congressional Record 5 (1997); note Senate Contested Election Cases, supra at 15, citing Rule
26.1, Standing Rules of the Senate.
10See Senate Contested Election Cases, supra at 11-12, 13. Riddick’s Senate Procedure, supra at 704. “Without
prejudice” indicates that the swearing-in is “without prejudice” to the right of the Senate to later determine, by majority
vote, the entitlement of the individual to the seat, although in later interpretations Senate leaders have stated the opinion
that any swearing in of a challenged Senator is “without prejudice” to the Senate’s rights of determination, even if not
expressly stated or “reserved” at the time. See Senate Contested Election Cases, supra at 14.
11 On “nine occasions ... the Senate [has] denied a seat to the candidate whose election had been certified by the state.”
Senate Contested Election Cases, supra at 1. The most recent case in which a Senator-elect presenting credentials was
not conditionally seated during an election contest appears to be Durkin v. Wyman, in 1974-1975, which involved a
contest where one candidate had been certified, and then after a state recount, such certification withdrawn and given to
the other candidate. Senate Election Cases, supra, case 137, at pp. 421-425; 121 Congressional Record 4-5 (January
14, 1975), and 1471-1495 (January 28, 1975). A detailed discussion and analysis of procedural practices and options
has been prepared by Elizabeth Rybicki, Analyst on the Congress and the Legislative Process, Government and Finance
Division, CRS (7-0644).
12 395 U.S. 486 (1969).
13 395 U.S. at 550. Emphasis added.
14 Senators: Article I, Section 3, clause 3; Representatives: Article I, Section 2, clause 2.
15 Deschler’s Precedents, Ch. 7, § 9, p. 98. Note, for example, the Senate consideration of the case of Senator-elect
It should be emphasized that the Powell decision concerned an exclusion based on judging
“qualifications” of a Member-elect. As noted by the Court, the central question of that case meant
that the Court “must determine the meaning of the phrase to ‘be the Judge of the Qualifications of 16
its own Members.’”
The limitations on judging the “qualifications” of Members-elect in an exclusion procedure, set
out in the Powell decision, do not, however, necessarily prohibit the Senate from looking into the
“election” or selection of an individual who presents “credentials” to be seated in the Senate.
Under the authority of Article I, Section 5, clause 1, to judge the “elections” and “returns” of its
own Members, the Senate has clear constitutional authority, and has in the past exercised such
authority, to look behind the certification or “credentials” of a Member-elect or Member-
designate to determine if the person presenting himself or herself for seating has been duly 17
chosen, elected, or selected.
In a Supreme Court decision subsequent to Powell v. McCormack, the Court clearly affirmed the
Senate’s authority to be the final judge of the elections and returns of its own Members. The
Court in Roudebush v. Hartke ruled that a state’s own contest procedures for a senatorial election
could not usurp or deprive the Senate of its constitutional duties and authority to exercise “an 18
unconditional and final judgment” over the seating of its own Members. In so holding, the Court
expressly recognized the constitutional authority for “an independent evaluation by the Senate” of 19
the selection of a person to be a United States Senator, finding that the Senate’s determination of
the right to a seat in Congress in an elections case is not reviewable by the courts because it is “a 20
non-justiciable political question.”
Earlier, the Supreme Court, in Barry v. United States ex rel. Cunningham,21 had acknowledged the
Senate’s authority to secure information it needed in determining an election contest where
corruption and fraud in the election had been alleged. The Court noted that the “jurisdiction of the
Senate to determine the rightfulness of the claim [to a Senate seat] was invoked and its power to
Arthur R. Gould of Maine, in 1926, concerning allegations of bribery of a foreign official in 1910 in a business deal.
Senate Election Cases, supra, Case 111.
16 395 U.S. at 521.
17 The Court in Powell expressly found that the House may not exclude by majority vote one who possesses the three
constitutional qualifications to office and is “duly elected” by his constituency. 395 U.S. at 522. Since the House and
Senate are authorized to judge not only the three “qualifications,” but also the “elections” and “returns” of their
Members, a justifiable inquiry may proceed under the Powell rationale as to whether a Senator-elect was duly elected
or selected. It should be remembered and emphasized that the Powell decision concerned a House proceeding, and no
Member-elect of the House may be “appointed” or “chosen” other than by popular election by “the people.” Article I,
Section 2, clause 1. Prior to the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, however, Senators were chosen by the state
legislators, and governors could, and may still, fill Senate vacancies by appointments, and thus the selection of Senators
has always involved more than popular elections. The same rationale would apply even if one semantically were to
consider lawful or proper election or selection as one of the constitutional “qualifications” for office. See Roudebush v.
Hartke , 405 U.S. 15, at 26, n. 23.
18 405 U.S. 15, 19 (1972).
19 405 U.S. at 25-26.
20 405 U.S. at 19.
21 279 U.S. 597 (1929).
adjudicate such right immediately attached by virtue of § 5 of Article I of the Constitution” when
a Member-elect who “had received a certificate from the Governor of the state” presented 22
“himself to the Senate, claiming all rights of membership.” The Court found that the Senate
“acts as a judicial tribunal” with many of the powers inherent in the court system in rendering, in 23
such election cases, “a judgment which is beyond the authority of any other tribunal to review.”
In numerous cases in the past the Senate has examined and “judged” the election or return of a
Senator-elect or Senator-designate to determine if the person presenting credentials was lawfully
or properly chosen or elected. The cases, instances, and precedents in which the propriety or
legality of the appointment of a Member-designate to the Senate is questioned in the Senate have
generally been characterized by parliamentarians and historians as “elections” challenges, 24
contests, or cases. That is, within the rubric of “elections” cases and elections challenges is the
Senate’s examination of the validity, legality, and propriety of a Member-designate’s selection or
Prior to the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 requiring the popular election of
Senators, Senators were chosen by the various state legislatures, although the governor of a state 25
could fill a vacancy when the legislature was in “recess.” Numerous “election contests” or
“elections cases” were presented in the Senate during this time challenging the credentials and
seating of a Member-designate based upon the questioning of the legality or propriety of a 26
governor’s appointment, or allegations of bribery and corruption in obtaining the selection of 27
the state legislature. In some of the cases concerning gubernatorial appointments, the Senate
279 U.S. at 614.
23 279 U.S. at 613, 616. See also Reed v. County Commissioners, 277 U.S. 376, 388 (1928).
24 See, for example, Senate Election Cases, supra, Case 88, in regards to Matthew Quay, characterized as an “Election
Case (appointment),” questioning the right of the governor “to make an appointment if the legislature had an
opportunity to elect a senator and failed to do so”; Case 85, Henry W. Corbett, characterized as an “Election Case,” in
which “the Senate faced the issue of whether a governor could appoint a United States Senator at the beginning of a
term if the state legislature had failed to elect”; Case 108, Gerald P. Nye: “Election Case (appointment),” determining
the right of the state’s governor to make a temporary appointment; and Case 124, Clarence E. Martin v. Joseph Rosier:
“Election case (appointment),” where in 1941 the Senate heard a challenge to the propriety of a governor’s appointment
to fill a Senate vacancy.
25 Constitution, Article I, Section 3, clauses 1, 2 (now superseded by the Seventeenth Amendment).
26 See footnote 24 above, and Senate Election Cases, Case 2, Kensey Johns; Case 6, Uriah Tracy; Case 8, Samuel
Smith; Case 12, James Lanman; Case 16, Ambrous H. Sevier; Case 23, Robert C. Winthrop; Case 25, Archibald Dixon;
Case 26, Samuel S. Phelps; Case 27, Jared W. Williams; Case 71, Charles H. Bell; Case 74, Henry W. Blair; Case 81,
Horace Chilton; Case 82, John B. Allen, Asahel C. Beckwith, and Lee Mantle; Case 98, Henry D. Clayton and Franklin
27 Election case of William A. Clark (Senate Election Cases, case 89) in which the Senate committee investigating the
credentials and election of Clark, selected by the Montana legislature, concluded in 1900 that Clark was not entitled to
his seat by virtue of extensive bribery and corruption in obtaining it. Clark resigned prior to full Senate action, but was
later selected and seated for a new Congress when no corruption charges were forwarded. In the election case of
William Lorimer (Case 95) the Senate, a year after seating Lorimer, investigated allegations that Lorimer had obtained
his seat in 1909 through bribery and corruption of the Illinois legislature. The Senate in 1912 eventually voted to
exclude Lorimer by declaring his election by the legislature invalid (see also Senate Legal Counsel, Contested Election
Cases, at 4-5). See also case of Alexander Caldwell (Case 61), where the Senate committee investigating allegations of
bribery and corruption by Caldwell in obtaining a Senate seat from the Kansas legislature, debated whether Caldwell’s
conduct warranted expulsion or a declaration nullifying his selection, opted for the latter, and reported that Caldwell
had not been “duly and legally elected” to the Senate. The ensuing debate in the Senate focused on whether Caldwell’s
refused to seat the Senator-designate even though the Senator-designate appeared with the official
certification from the state, and eventually “excluded” the individuals from the Senate, such as in 28
the case of Kensey Johns, appointed by the Governor of Delaware to fill a vacancy in 1784, the 29
case of Henry W. Corbett, appointed by the Governor of Oregon in 1898, and the case of 30
Matthew Quay, appointed by the Governor of Pennsylvania in 1898.
After the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment, the popular elections of Senators were also
challenged in various cases in which there were allegations of corruption or bribery in the
selection of a Member-elect, such that the validity of the entire election process was called into
doubt. For example, in 1929, in the case of William S. Vare, the Senate eventually agreed to a
resolution which found that “the expenditure of such large sums of money to secure the
nomination ... together with the charges of corruption and fraud ... prima facie taints with fraud
and corruption the credentials of the said William S. Vare for a seat in the United States Senate,” 31
and refused to seat Senator-elect Vare. The Senate Legal Counsel has observed that, “On three
occasions the Senate has determined that an election was so tainted with corruption that its results 32
were invalid. Each time the Senate declared the seat vacant.” With respect to the similar factors
to consider in the House of Representatives elections cases, it has been noted in Deschler’s
Congress is the sole judge of the elections of its Members, and regulation of elections is a
subject of various federal statutes. If the House found that a Member had conducted such a
corrupt and fraudulent campaign as to render the election invalid, the House could deny a 33
seat to such Member-elect, not for disqualifications but for failure to be duly elected.
It would thus appear from congressional precedents that corruption and fraud in the election or
selection process would be, and have been, valid and relevant considerations for the Senate to
examine in determining the legitimacy of the selection of a Senator-elect or Senator-designate
who presents credentials to be seated.
The authority of the Senate to “exclude” a Member-elect or a Member-designate by majority vote
for failure to be duly chosen, or failure to meet the constitutional qualifications for office, must be
distinguished from an “expulsion” by the Senate. An expulsion, unlike an exclusion, is generally
recognized as a “disciplinary” measure to punish a Member, as well as a measure to protect the
integrity and dignity of the institution from those who have proven unworthy of continued
election should be nullified, or whether Caldwell should be expelled, and was eventually concluded by Caldwell’s
28 Senate Election Cases, supra, Case 2, at 6-7.
29 Senate Election Cases, supra, Case 85, at 253-255; S. Rept. 505, 55th Cong., 2d Sess. (1898).
30 Senate Election Cases, supra, Case 88, at 261-262; S. Rept. 153, 56th Cong., 1st Sess. (1900).
31 S. Res. 111, 71st Congress (1929). Senate Election Cases, supra Case 109. See also the case of Frank L. Smith, in
which the Senate in 1928 voted to deny a seat to a Senator-elect because his election was tainted with “blatant fraud
and corruption.” S.Rept. 92, 70th Cong., 2d Sess. (1928), see Senate Election Cases, Case 110, and Senate Legal
Counsel, Contested Election Cases, at 4-6.
32 Senate Legal Counsel, Contested Election Cases, at 4.
33Deschler's Precedents, supra at Chapter 7, § 11, p. 118.
membership.34 There is a separate authority and procedure for “expelling” a sitting Member for
misconduct, general fitness to serve, or other issues of character or behavior, which is authorized 35
in the Constitution at Article I, Section 5, clause 2, and requires a two-thirds majority vote.
Exclusion is based upon a failure to meet the constitutional qualifications for office, or a failure to
be duly elected or selected, such that one is not entitled to the seat, and may be determined by
See Story, supra, Vol. II, §§ 835-836; and Deschler’s Precedents, Ch. 12, § 12, p. 174.
35 See generally, CRS Report 93-875, Expulsion and Censure Actions Taken by the Full Senate Against Members, by