Qualifications: residency; conduct of election; eligibility of state legislators.
Memorials presented: Feb. 23, 1899, Dec. 6, 1899
Referred to committee: Dec. 6, 1899
Committee report: Mar. 20, 1900
Senate vote: April 27, 1900
Result: Scott retained seat
In 1898 West Virginia joined a growing list of states whose internal political strife hindered the effective selection of a United States senator. As the state assembly gathered to choose a senator for the term beginning March 4, 1899, the proceedings were overshadowed by rumors that the Republican minority in the house intended to withdraw, establish a separate body, and join with the Republican senate to unseat various Democrats. This conflict was but the most recent in a series of state controversies that included charges of fraudulent election practices in the counties, certificates granted to unlawful assembly members, and the use of threats and intimidation by high-ranking state officials. To quell the rising ill-will that threatened to halt all legislative business, five Democrats and five Republicans signed a joint agreement that limited controversies about membership in the legislature to four individuals who were contesting two seats, postponing a decision on those seats until after the election for U.S. senator, in which none of the four contestants would vote. An imperfect solution at best, the document temporarily quieted seating challenges, but it was in this still hostile legislative climate that a joint assembly of the two houses elected Republican Nathan B. Scott to the United States Senate.
Statement of the Case
Before Nathan Scott appeared to claim his seat, disgruntled Democratic West Virginia legislators, led by their defeated colleague, John T. McGraw, filed petitions on February 23 and March 2, 1899, challenging the seating of the new senator. When Nathan Scott arrived on March 4, 1899, with proper credentials signed by the governor, the Senate permitted him to take his seat.
As the Senate appeared to have ignored the original complaints against Scott, his challengers prepared a new list of allegations and submitted another petition on December 6, 1899, shortly after the regular first session of the Fifty-sixth Congress began. In their second attack, Scott's opponents listed several charges, apparently in the hope that the Senate would find at least one to be a disqualification. The petition stated that the joint agreement was illegal because it had been forced on the Democrats under threats of physical violence. According to the petitions, state Republicans had used this agreement to secure the election of Scott because under it the two Democratic state legislative contestants who were eventually seated had not been permitted to vote for U.S. senator.
In addition, two Republican members of the state senate, who should have been unseated, voted for Scott. As a final complaint, the West Virginia Democrats insisted that Scott failed to meet the state's residency requirements because he was an inhabitant of the District of Columbia. The Senate referred this lengthy petition and all the earlier papers related to Nathan Scott to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.
Response of the Senate
On March 20, 1900, a majority of the committee returned a report favorable to Nathan Scott. Noting that Scott had been elected by a majority of the legislators who voted, and that a quorum of the joint assembly and a quorum of each house were present and voted, the report argued that the U.S. Senate could not review the decision of the West Virginia senate on seating its members. The Senate also could not reverse the signed agreement among the West Virginia legislators. Had the complaining parties proved force or intimidation by "revolutionary conspirators," the report asserted, the Senate could, as it had in the past, investigate charges of fraud and corruption. In the view of the committee majority, the West Virginia case simply did not represent such an extreme situation, particularly since the evidence showed that the five Democrats had signed and submitted the proposed agreement, which was then accepted by the Republicans, making it unlikely that the Democrats had acted under coercion by the Republicans. Regarding Scott's residence, the report noted that Scott lived in Washington, D.C., while discharging the duties of his office as U.S. commissioner of internal revenue but remained officially an inhabitant of Wheeling, West Virginia. All committee members agreed on this latter point. For all of these reasons, the committee's majority determined that Scott was entitled to his seat.
In a strongly worded minority report, Edmund W. Pettus (Democrat-AL) vigorously dissented, complaining that the committee had refused to accept depositions from witnesses stating that a conspiracy interfered with the freedom of the West Virginia legislature's election of Scott.
The floor debate continued until late in April. Scott's opponents argued that the Senate had a responsibility to scrutinize elections that involved charges of bribery and corruption. They bemoaned the Senate's seemingly frivolous attitude toward the West Virginia constitution's eligibility qualifications. Scott's supporters countered that the journal entries for the legislative proceedings did not reveal threats or plots. They conceded that the records showed some members denied voting privileges; but this action, they contended, fell under the right of a state assembly to decide the eligibility of its own members. Despite repeated efforts by Pettus to delay action, the Senate on April 27, 1900, voted 52 to 3 to affirm Nathan Scott's right to retain his seat.
On May 25, 1900, the Senate agreed that John McGraw and Nathan Scott should each receive $2,850 in compensation for their expenses. Scott, whose earlier careers had included frontier miner and glass manufacturer, served in the Senate until 1911. He then engaged in banking in Washington, D. C., where he died in 1924.
Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.