Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) has been admitted to the hospital after possibly suffering a stroke. On the good side, it appears that he got early medical attention. On the bad side, if he cannot continue in office he will be replaced by a Republican and the Senate will flip back to the Republicans.
Should the 59 year old Johnson’s health problem be serious enough to force him to resign from the Senate, according to the South Dakota secretary of state, the governor of South Dakota may appoint a replacement. The appointment would last until the next general election — in this case, 2008. Johnson’s term happens to expire in 2008.
The 17th amendment of the U.S. Constitution says state legislatures can give their governors the power to appoint someone else to take over, but only in the case of “vacancies.”
What’s a vacancy? Clearly death or resignation, but history suggests not much else. Serious illness doesn’t count.
The Senate Historian’s office cites several examples of a senator being incapacitated for years and remaining in office.
Most recently, Sen. Karl Mundt (ironically, also from South Dakota) suffered a stroke in 1969 and was incapacitated, but he refused to step down. He remained in office until Jan. 1973 when his term expired. Mundt was pressured repeatedly to step down during his illness, but he demanded that the governor promise to appoint his wife. The governor refused, and Mundt remained in office.
Another example was Sen. Carter Glass, D-VA. Sen. Glass had a heart condition that prevented him from working for most of his last term after his re-election in 1942. Yet Glass refused to resign, and finally passed away from congestive heart failure in his apartment at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC in May of 1946.
Hopefully, Mr. Johnson will make a good recovery.