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The Election Case of William P. Jackson v. Blair Lee of Maryland (1914)

Photo of Senator Blair Lee of Maryland

Interpretation of the Seventeenth Amendment.

Petition received: Dec. 5, 1913
Referred to committee: Dec. 5, 1913
Committee report: Jan. 19, 1914
Senate vote: Jan. 28, 1914

Result: Lee Seated

In January 1910 the Maryland state assembly elected Isidor Rayner to a United States Senate term that would end March 3, 1917. On November 25, 1912, Rayner died, and Republican reform governor Phillips Lee Goldsborough promptly named a party colleague, William Purnell Jackson, to fill the vacancy on a temporary appointment.

Statement of the Case
On May 31, 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment, providing for direct popular election of senators, became part of the Constitution. In accord with the new amendment's provisions, Governor Goldsborough issued a writ of election for the vacancy that Jackson filled under the temporary appointment. When Maryland held the special election on November 4, 1913, the winner, Democrat Blair Lee, became the first popularly elected United States senator from Maryland.

Lee's election was quickly challenged by supporters of William P. Jackson on the grounds that, since he had been appointed under the original constitutional provision, he was entitled to hold his seat until the regularly scheduled adjournment date of the Maryland state assembly. Jackson argued that, under the terms of his appointment, he held his place until the assembly elected a replacement, or if it failed to do so, until it adjourned. Jackson thus claimed that he had the right to remain in the Senate until April 7, 1914, the latest date he could have remained a senator if the Seventeenth Amendment had never been passed.

In response to the challenge, when Blair Lee's credentials were presented on December 5, 1913, the Senate referred them to the Committee on Privileges and Elections and deferred seating him.

Response of the Senate
On January 19, 1914, the committee returned a majority report favorable to Blair Lee. This report argued that Jackson's tenure had always been uncertain because his appointment was temporary. Since the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment ended the state legislature's authority in the matter of senatorial selection, there was no longer any basis for his contention that he should hold office until the legislature adjourned. The majority thus concluded that Jackson's right to a seat terminated on the election of a qualified successor, "without regard to the manner of such election." The bipartisan majority also emphasized the legality and propriety with which the Maryland special election had been conducted and praised the correctness of this first popular election. The report congratulated the Maryland governor for his willingness to comply with every aspect of the new regulation, including the endorsement of credentials when the election was won by a member of the opposing political party.

In two minority reports, three Republican committee members tried to bolster Jackson's case by arguing that the governor could not call an election without action by the legislature to set the time and manner of the election, and the Maryland legislature had adopted no regulation since ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment. The minority also contended that the amendment itself stated that it should not affect the term of any senator chosen before it took effect.

The Senate debated the intention and the meaning of the Seventeenth Amendment for two days. Then, on January 28, 1914, it voted 53 to 13 to accept the reasoning of the majority report that Jackson's claim was always a temporary one and that Blair Lee had been elected in accord with the regulations of the new constitutional amendment. Lee then came forward and took the oath of office.

This case and that of Franklin P. Glass that was resolved a week later were the last in which the Senate wrestled with the role of the state legislatures in electing U.S. senators. All future election disputes were governed by the provisions of the Seventeenth Amendment.

William Purnell Jackson continued his political career in Maryland and served as the state treasurer for two years. He died in 1939. Blair Lee served in the Senate until 1917. He then returned to his law practice and had a distinguished career until his death in 1944.

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.

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