Lawmaker says Legislature, not political parties, should pick replacements in case of U.S. Senate vacancy

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In the unlikely event that one of Utah’s U.S. Senators were to not finish their term in office, the party that they belong to gets to nominate three possible replacements, with the final choice up to the governor. One Utah lawmaker says the legislature should play a role in picking a replacement.

The current process for picking a replacement U.S. Senator has the governor appointing one of three people nominated by the party’s state central committee. Rep. Merril Nelson, R-Grantsville, says picking those three nominees should be up to the Legislature, not a political party because that’s closer to what the founders intended.

“This brings us back closer to what it used to be,” says Nelson. “Under the Constitution, state legislatures originally elected Senators. I think it’s proper to return that power to the Legislature.”

Nelson’s HB89 tasks the Legislature with coming up with the three nominees that will be forwarded to the governor, with the governor making the final selection. That temporary replacement will fill the seat until the governor calls a special election, which is required by the Constitution. The temporary replacement must be the same part as the retiring Senator, meaning Utah’s Republican-dominated legislature wouldn’t be able to pick a Republican to replace a Democratic Senator.

Prior to the ratification of the 17th Amendment, state lawmakers were responsible for electing U.S. Senators. The Amendment was ratified by 36 states in 1913 and was implemented over the following six years. Utah was the only state to reject the Amendment. The Utah Legislature voted down the Amendment in 1913. Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia have not voted on the proposal.

Only one Utah Senator has resigned before their term ended. Sen. Wallace Bennett left his seat in December of 1974 in order to let his successor, Jake Garn, take office early and earn seniority over the other freshmen Senators elected that year. No Utah Senator has died while in office.

Nelson says he began thinking about making the change to how replacements for U.S. Senators are selected after the possibility of Sen. Mike Lee possibly nominated to the Supreme Court arose following the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“How often do we have a vacancy? Why should that pick fall to the state party when the legislature had that power to begin with?” he said.

Nelson says his bill does not lay out a process for determining how lawmakers would choose the three nominees that are forwarded to the governor. He anticipates that lawmakers would likely have to come up with that process if his bill passes.