Lame Ducks and Constitutional Follies

UPDATE: They've decided that Quinn will appoint a replacement for the remainder of Topinka's current term while Rauner will appoint a replacement for the term she recently won.  Quinn wants the legislature to have a special election for the seat in 2016, but he can't force it and it probably won't happen.

Today, Judy Baar Topinka died.  She had a long career and was quite popular across the state.  She was also the sort to tell it like it is and not mince words.  She will certainly be missed.  She will also likely have lots of ink used to compare her to Jane Byrne who also recently died.  Of course, since I'm me, I'm not going to focus on any of that.  I'm going to focus on my (admittedly unqualified) opinions about the issues the timing of her death have left behind.

We're currently in the lame duck session.  For those not familiar, it's the vast limbo between election day (November 4th) and inauguration day (January 20th).  The late inauguration is a holdover from Ye Olden Dayes when it took time to gather information and to figure out what was going on and to travel across the state and/or country.  When you had to go by horse, this made sense.  However, we're now in a world where, nine times out of ten, we know the winner of any given election within hours of the polls closing.  Some folks will even make (shockingly accurate) predictions within minutes.  There's a whole cottage industry built around seeing who can predict the fastest (personally, I go with the Ace of Spades HQ Decision Desk which has been eerily good).

Regardless, this politically ancient process leaves us with almost three months where people who know they are out of a job still have power.  If you've been voted out, you no longer need to worry about the ramifications of your actions.  It's not like you can be voted out; that already happened!  Imagine being at work and being told, "Hey, in three months you're going to be fired.  Keep doing your job until then."  What kind of work would you do?  How motivated would you be?  How many boxes of pens would you steal?  Now imagine that you were partially responsible for a multi-billion dollar budget.  It's insanity.

And it's what, finally, brings me around to what's currently rattling around in my head.  See, back in November, Ms. Topinka ran for state Comptroller, seeking a second term.  She won her election rather handily (49.56 to 45.67 to 4.76); not bad for a Republican in a pretty blue state, wave election or no.  At the risk of sounding exceedingly ghoulish, the timing here couldn't have been much worse.  Right now, the governor is a Democrat, but he lost his election.  Judy was a Republican who had won re-election to her seat.  So we have a lame-duck Democrat deciding who replaces a Republican before another Republican gets his job.  Since she just died today, nobody's saying anything, but you know it's going to get messy and it's going to get messy fast.

Because Quinn can totally skunk Rauner on this, and I don't think there's anything anyone can do to stop him.

 If the [...] Comptroller [...] office becomes vacant, the Governor shall fill the office by appointment.  The appointee shall hold office until the elected officer qualifies or until a successor is elected and qualified as may be provided by law and shall not be subject to removal by the Governor.

That's from the Illinois Constitution.  If we want to take a strict reading, Quinn can't even punt on this to avoid it.  He shall fill the office.  I don't think that's the intent there, but I can't imagine Quinn just sitting on his hands regardless.  So, Quinn gets to fill Topinka's seat for the lame duck session, and then it says filled until there's a qualified replacement; in other words, until someone gets elected.  Which means, either a special election, or someone gets handed a state-wide office for four years.  That's a helluva patronage gift.  Or he could appoint himself to pad his pension with four more years.

Rauner and company will certainly argue it.  They'll claim that Quinn's appointment will be for the lame duck session, and thus a new appointment will happen come January 20th.  But, I don't read it that way.  "The appointee shall hold office until [1]the elected officer qualifies or [2]until a successor is elected..."  Well, [1] ain't never gonna happen.  The dead only get to vote in this state, not hold office.  That leaves the appointee in until [2] a successor is elected.  And as an extra added "suck it", we have that trailing line about "shall not be subject to removal by the Governor". That last line adds some extra gunpowder to this situation, as Rauner wouldn't even be able to muscle his way through because he can't remove the appointee.

Of course, Quinn could diffuse the entire situation by getting in touch with the Rauner camp, find out who they would appoint, and appoint that person.  It would be a pretty stand-up thing to do, and I would like to think that Quinn's that kind of a stand-up guy.  Unfortunately, the knock-down, drag-out viciousness of this election, and the metric tons of mud that Quinn was flinging make me wonder.

The problem is, appointing a Democrat to the post is a short-term, petty victory, that will just make things more caustic in the state.  Perhaps he figures that the electorate's goldfish-like memory would provide cover, but sometimes the public remembers the damndest things.  And with the general popularity of Topinka, it might stick in several craws.

By my read of it, the ball is entirely in Quinn's court.  Not even counting the political makeup of the State Supreme Court (Illinois Supremes are elected; currently it's 4D to 3R), I would expect them to side with Quinn, legally, being able to appoint until the next election (either a special or in 2018).  Now, personally, I think it would be a bit of dirty pool for Quinn to appoint a hack (or himself) to the post.  Appointing Sheila Simon might seem like a compromise, but if the people of Illinois had wanted Simon as Comptroller, they would have voted for her.  Appointing the Rauner pick might seem like a wasted opportunity, but, dammit, it's the right thing to do.

Everyone complains about how divided everything is.  How political everything is.  How everyone's at everyone else's throat.  How nasty it all is.  This is a chance to climb out of the mud; to offer an olive branch.  To maybe dial back the bile. Perhaps it's because that olive branch would help "my team", but I like to think I'd be advocating the same even if the parties were switched.

And, while we're at it, can we please address this archaic inauguration system?  There's no reason we can't do this in December.  Gives you a month for recounts and for everyone to get their ducks in a row.  Outside of extreme situations, there won't be any need to delay.  And if those situations come up, we have procedure for delayed inaugurations.  And the occasional headaches caused by delayed inaugurations is nothing compared to the indigestion caused by lame duck sessions.  Even when we aren't dealing with situations like this.

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