February 25, 2011 – Article I, Section 02, Clause 4 of the United States Constitution – Guest Essayist: William C. Duncan, Director of the Marriage Law Foundation

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 4:  When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.

The wisdom and foresight of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution is not manifested only in the substantive principles of constitutional design but also in the details of their plan of government. Thus, in the seemingly small matter of filling vacancies in the House of Representatives, we see manifestations of protection of state prerogatives, safeguarding the representative principle and flexibility for specific circumstances. See Joseph Story, 2 Commentaries on the Constitution §683 (1833).

The fourth clause of the section of Article I dealing with the House of Representatives provides: “When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such vacancies.” Though the Framers might have provided for a national solution to the problem of a vacancy, they deferred to the state. They did not, however, leave to the state executive (it should be remembered that some states did not yet have governors at the time of the drafting, thus the use of “Executive Authority” which could include the presidents of Delaware or Pennsylvania) the ability to appoint a successor to a Representative who had left a vacancy. Rather, in keeping with the principle of representation so central to the plan for a House of Representatives, the Framers specified that an election should be held to determine a replacement. Thus, no section of the country should be left without a popular representative for long. By contrast, a vacancy in the Senate was to be filled by the Legislature or temporarily by the executive (until the 17th Amendment), reflecting the design of that branch as representative of the interests of states as states.

The only major controversy involving this provision seems to have occurred early on when William Pinkney, from Maryland, resigned as a member of the House of Representatives. Some members of Congress questioned the propriety of seating the man elected to fill the vacancy. Their concern was that perhaps a resignation ought not be allowed, following precedent from Britain’s House of Commons. That argument was not accepted by the body and the successor was accepted as a member of the House. See Philip B. Kurland & Ralph Lerner, editors, 2 The Founders Constitution 146-147 (1987).

This clause is still operative. As of this writing, a vacancy has occurred in New York’s 26th District due to the resignation of Representative Chris Lee. New York law gives the governor power to determine that a vacancy exists and then to provide for an election for the replacement. N.Y. Public Officers Law §42. Importantly, there seems to be no controversy over the constitutional provision at issue only at the expense of an election. See Evan Dawson, “How Much Will a Special Election Cost?” 13WHAM (Rochester), February 9, 2011 at http://www.13wham.com/content/blogs/story/Chris-Lee-Fallout-How-Much-Will-a-Special/qn57U3H1VkyesU0gu3cmoA.cspx.

Mr. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation (www.marriagelawfoundation.org). He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor

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13 Responses to “February 25, 2011 – Article 1, Section 2, Clause 4 of the United States Constitution – Guest Essayist: William C. Duncan, Director of the Marriage Law Foundation”

  1. BobG says:

February 25, 2011 at 10:38 am

I don’t see much discussion happening on this. It seems pretty straightforward. I would just like to say that it’s an excellent observation pointed out in the first sentence of the explanation “The wisdom and foresight of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution is not manifested only in the substantive principles of constitutional design but also in the details of their plan of government.”. I couldn’t agree more. It’s such a simple yet complete document. Breaking it down in this manor over the 90 days is a wonderful idea. It’s a shame this is not taught in our schools this way. Thank You.

  1. Janine Turner says:

February 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

Mr. Duncan,
I thank you for your interesting, insightful essay. It is always refreshing to see yet another aspect of the Constitution being applied today, once again emphasizing its relevancy. This clause demonstrates how intricate and vital all sections of the Constitution are. It is our reference, it is our roadmap. Citizens who think the Constitution is not relevant have not read it, and/or have not joined our educational forum!
God Bless,
Janine Turner

  1. Susan says:

February 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Hmmm, wonder what the attitude towards preserving states rights would be if our Governors were call State presidents instead? Governor has a subservient connotation to the superior authority whereas a State President seems to me would elevate the governor to a similar position.

  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

February 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Good observation Susan. The original draft constitution submitted to the 1787 ConCon actually had the US President elected by the Senate and not the Electoral College.

  1. Donna Hardeman says:

February 25, 2011 at 4:22 pm

@BobG – not only should it be taught this way in undergraduate school but, more importantly, in law school. During law school, I was taught about precedent, i.e. what the Supreme Court had decided and the line of cases following a certain decision. It never occurred to me then – of course, what does anyone know at that age – that a more basic understanding of what it actually means would be the best foundation for our interpretation of laws and the practice of law. What we have now seems to be a game of “telephone” played by the jurors “du jour.” I would even go a step further and make a requirement that everyone arguing in front of SCOTUS be required to address the intention of the Founders – then they can talk about their beloved precedent!!

  1. Susan says:

February 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I stand and cheer Donna I could not have said it better, and coming from one who attended law school it carries just a bit more cache!

  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

February 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Thanks Donna on voicing what is the issue of Judicial Review. And the following is English Common Law procedure on interpreting law that American Lawyers used to do up to the late 1800s:

Blackstone provided an explicitly numbered serial order of steps toward carrying out those “intentions at the time when the law was made.”

First, the words were “to be understood in their usual and most known signification.”
In short, the judge was not to interpret the words de novo in whatever way grammar and the dictionary would permit, much less according to later beliefs or usage.
Only when “words happen to be still dubious” was it permissible, according to Blackstone, to go on to the …

Second step: try to “establish their meaning from the context.”
It was the original cognitive meaning, not intent in the sense of psychological motivation or philosophical values, which was being sought.

Third step: determining what was “in the eye of the legislator,” only as a guide to the cognitive meaning of words still undetermined by the first two steps.
Only where words still had no significance or “a very absurd signification” the…

Fourth step: “we must a little deviate from the received sense,” so that a law, for example, against shedding blood in the street should not apply to a surgeon treating an injured man where the fourth step is not admissible if violating the first three steps. It did not involve conceiving new meanings, whether based on later insights, judicial conscience, or the philosophical values presumed to motivate the original law.

These themes elaborated by Blackstone and Holmes continue to be echoed by contemporary advocates of judicial restraint. For example, the self-disciplined judge, according to Richard Posner “is the honest agent of others until the will of the principals can no longer be discerned.”

from an article by Thomas Sowell, Judicial Activism Reconsidered

  1. Jon says:

February 25, 2011 at 9:28 pm

I wonder does anybody know roughly when SCOTUS started using precident to decide cases? I would like to read cases that reflect the difference in methods.


  1. Donna Hardeman says:

February 25, 2011 at 10:01 pm

I’m gonna miss you guys for a week. Going to a legal convention. I will print up everything and read it and join again in a week’s time.

  1. Debbie Bridges says:

February 25, 2011 at 11:06 pm

I would have thought that Studying the Constitution would be the very FIRST course taught in law school!

Thank you for starting this 90 day study. I enjoyed the Federalist Papers immensely as I learned so much. I have enjoyed reading and commenting some so far and look forward to learning more about the Constitution. What a great site this is. I have recommended this site to my friends on facebook. Hopefully they will check it out.

  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

February 26, 2011 at 12:42 am

Jon, precedents are actually part of the English Common Law under the principal of Stare Decisis: Latin for “let the decisions stand”. It has been customary of judges to want to avoid over turning peer decisions if it can be helped. Which is rather sound if you think about it. How can you have justice when judges make all sorts of opinions about the law to where litigation becomes more of a “slot machine” of chance?

The real question you want is when did the SCOTUS depart from the English Common Law of interpretation and took up rather the Case Law method to where the actual upholding the originalism of the law is kicked to the curb? I do not think that is a cut-and-dry answer as it happed by hook and by crook but a strong authority on this I would say is James R. Stoner, Jr., author of Common-Law Liberty: Rethinking American Constitutionalism and Common Law and Liberal Theory: Coke, Hobbes, and the Origins of American Constitutionalism.

What I do know is that cerca 1870′s was a turning point where the practice of observing the English Common Law was dropped but only borrowing some of the procedural rudiments of the English Common Law. This is a problem. Why? Because doing so has the end run affect of amending the US Constitution by changing the legal underpinnings of terms and language used in constitutional law without having been put forth as a measure of ratification by 3/4ths the states. The states never consented to any such legal manuevering. I will post here if I find something more specifc in due course.

  1. Scott Miller says:

February 26, 2011 at 4:49 am

Mr. Howarth, why do you use “ConCon” over the phrase “Constitutional Convention”? I mean no disrespect, sir, but I find the use of “ConCon” rather than “Constitutional Convention” offensive and rather disrespectful of our Founding Fathers…

  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

February 26, 2011 at 3:14 pm

ConCon is a short phrase used in political commentary, debates, academia and journalism. And it has been used by those who revere the intents of the Founding Fathers so I had no idea that anyone who would be offended by such usage. In this day and age, I had just learned last night that BRB means “be right back” and TTFN means “ta ta for now” from doing an IM exchange in regards to arranging renovation on a home.

But I see what you mean as I have had people who do not often read newspapers and other forms of media coverage where the mode is to introduce a person or place first, and then resort to an abbreviated form like a person’s last name later in the text. Immediately upon hearing/reading the abbreviated form, the hearers take it as disrespect. They partly do this to keep the text short as no wonder they have to squeeze everything in columns and avoid over running onto another page. The same applies here. Several times I had to cut my writings down to avoid over running the window size of the posting here, in case you did not know, there is a 3000 character limit.

So my usage is out of habit by reason of the mode of exchange here. But no intents of disrespect on my part. Sorry for my being terse. But you will find me holding the founder’s in admiration and wonder; and I have been alleged to be a founder father worshiper by those who take them lightly. I also suffer some from interpersonal relations for health reasons: I will expend myself at a task at hand to complete it at the expense of amenable relations on the hows and whys what I am doing matters in part because I may be in shock at the time. For this cause, I may take extra time out in writting something to make it seque well with a thread, and if I am not quick enough, then the moment changes and now what I wrote does not fit as well and has to be rehashed again.

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