North Dakota Republican William Langer had a colorful political career for decades before he entered the United States Senate. From 1916 to 1920, he served as the state's attorney general, fiercely enforcing Prohibition. During those years, he had led a posse against illegal liquor stores, commandeered telephone lines during a vice raid, censured 275 North Dakota schools for failing to display the American flag, been blamed for the suicide of a former attorney general, and escaped impeachment by one vote. His unorthodox methods, Langer conceded, "tended to make feelings rather bitter." A vigorous champion of the North Dakota farmers, Langer enjoyed immense popularity and in 1932 won the governorship. In 1934, following conviction on charges of political corruption, he was removed from office, but after a reversal on appeal and two new trials, he was exonerated and again elected governor. In 1940 Langer won a seat in the United States Senate.
Statement of the Case
On January 3, 1941, William Langer appeared to take his oath of office. Before he could do so, Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley (D-KY) informed the Senate that several North Dakota citizens had that day filed a petition of protest against Langer. This complaint accused the senator-elect of bribery in the leasing of government property, receiving kickbacks, collecting fees for fictitious services, and converting proceeds from litigation settlements. Barkley asked that Langer be seated without prejudice and that the matter be referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections. In the debate that followed, the chair indicated that seating without prejudice meant that the Senate could later rule on Langer's fitness for office by a majority vote, rather than by the two-thirds vote required to expel a senator. Langer took his oath of office, and the protest documents went to the committee. A subcommittee held hearings over the next two weeks, followed by full committee hearings in November 1941.
Response of the Senate Select Committee
On January 29, 1942, the committee returned a majority report recommending that William Langer was not entitled to his seat. While acknowledging that Langer fulfilled the constitutional requirements of age, citizenship, and residence, and that he had not been charged with any disorderly behavior during his membership in the Senate that would justify expulsion, the report questioned his "moral fitness to be a senator" and recommended that he be excluded by a majority vote.
An extraordinary assortment of testimony, both from witnesses and from Langer himself, led the committee majority to its negative conclusions. The report cited the North Dakota senator for his "moral turpitude" as a public official and charged that he never permitted the law to stand between himself and his personal desires, ambitions, and greed. Allegations detailed a chain of unethical episodes that included jury tampering, attempting to influence the federal judge in his corruption case, accepting $56,000 in return for approving questionable bond transactions, subornation of perjury, inciting a riot, and accepting $25,000 to lower taxes for the Great Northern Railway Company. In one particularly outrageous occurrence, witnesses recounted a 1932 occasion when Langer as a private attorney kidnapped his own client from a local jail, transported the man and his ex-wife across the state line, and convinced the woman to agree to a marriage ceremony. Langer did not deny that he concocted this bizarre scheme to prevent the wife—the only eyewitness to a sordid murder—from testifying against her husband. In exchange for her cooperation, Langer promised to arrange a second divorce without fees right after the trial. The woman subsequently married someone else on Langer's assurance that she was free to do so, only to learn nine years later that he had in fact neglected to arrange her divorce.
Clearly shocked by these outlandish events, the members of the majority concluded that the gross improprieties, "lawlessness, shot-gun law enforcement, jail-breaking," and general obstruction of the administration of justice that represented Langer's entire career, as well as instances of lying to the committee, demanded his removal from the Senate. In the majority's view, Langer's behavior demonstrated "a continuous, contemptuous, and shameful disregard for the high concepts of public duty." The voters of North Dakota, they contended, were not fully informed about such activities when they voted to send Langer to Washington, and he should therefore be denied his seat.
A vigorous minority report objected to the tone of the majority report and the conduct of the investigation, noting that never in Senate history had such a sweeping review been made of a member's past. This report criticized the process used to gather evidence, the lack of stated rules by which evidence was admitted, and the general suppression of Langer's rights. It called the "evidence" little more than gossip and hearsay and questioned the reliability of witnesses. The lengthy report itemized and refuted in detail each of the charges against Langer and pointed out that, despite his colorful career, Langer had always been vindicated. In fact, these senators declared, all of the complaints against Langer were well known in North Dakota and had been widely discussed during the campaign, yet the voters had selected him anyway. Matters of the character and behavior of a senator, they believed, "are best determined by the members of the community" in which the challenged individual resides. These committee members therefore expressed reluctance to judge a colleague in the absence of "the most clear and convincing proof that such step is necessary." They were particularly concerned about the danger of establishing the precedent that the Senate could be used by a member's political opponents to overturn the will of a state's citizens as expressed at the polls. Referring to the majority report, the authors of the minority report, Ellison D. Smith (D-SC) and Abe Murdock (D-UT), warned the Senate, "We cannot think of a better illustration of the danger of being swept away by a barrage of slander." Tom Connally (D-TX) concurred in the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to warrant expelling or excluding Langer.
With the distribution of the reports, the floor debate opened on March 9, 1942, continuing over a period of two weeks. Langer himself was present to hear his detractors hammer away at his "moral turpitude," while his supporters repeatedly stressed that new qualifications for a Senate seat could not be added to those set by the Constitution. In the end the constitutional arguments won out. On March 27, 1942, the Senate rejected the first part of the committee's resolution, which stated that Langer could be denied his seat by a simple majority vote. This meant that the case would be considered an expulsion and would require a two-thirds vote. Ignoring the recommendation of the majority report, the Senate then refused by a vote of 30 yeas to 52 nays to deny Langer his seat.
On September 17, 1942, the Senate voted to pay $16,500 in attorney's fees for Langer's defense of his seat, after defeating an amendment to reduce the amount to $10,000.
William Langer served in the Senate until his death in 1959. Throughout the post-World War II era he clung steadfastly to his isolationist principles, being one of only two senators to vote against the United Nations Charter.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 368-370.