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Phillips v. Rockefeller

decided: December 11, 1970; As Amended February 2, 1971.

RANDOLPH PHILLIPS, IN HIS OWN RIGHT INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CHAIRMAN OF THE COMMITTEE FOR FAIR PLAY FOR VOTERS, ETHEL FRANKEL, NINA PHILLIPS AND DR. SAMUEL J. PHILLIPS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT INDIVIDUALLY AND AS MEMBERS OF THE COMMITTEE FOR FAIR PLAY FOR VOTERS, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
NELSON A. ROCKEFELLER, GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, AND JOHN P. LOMENZO, SECRETARY OF STATE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Lumbard, Chief Judge, Feinberg, Circuit Judge, and Clarie, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Lumbard

LUMBARD, Chief Judge.

The sole question which we find necessary to reach in this case is whether the language of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that the United States Senators from each state shall be "elected by the people thereof" requires that a candidate for the Senate receive a majority of the votes cast at the general election in order to be elected.*fn1 On this ground the plaintiffs here seek to prevent the defendant state officials from certifying James L. Buckley as the duly elected Senator from New York. At the general election held in New York on November 3, 1970, Buckley received only thirty-nine percent of the votes cast, while the other two candidates, Richard L. Ottinger and Charles E. Goodell, received thirty-seven percent and twenty-four percent respectively. We disagree with plaintiffs' contention and affirm the judgment below.

This suit was commenced in the Southern District of New York on November 4, 1970 and was originally based upon the Seventeenth Amendment and 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 1331 (1964).*fn2 Plaintiffs allege that they are citizens and registered voters of the state of New York who voted in the November 3, 1970 election, and that they bring this action "in their own right individually and as Chairman and members respectively of The Committee for Fair Play for Voters and also on behalf of all registered voters similarly situated." They contend that a candidate for the Senate cannot be "elected by the people" within the meaning of the Seventeenth Amendment unless he receives a majority of the votes cast for that office in the election. In their reply memorandum in the district court, plaintiffs changed the jurisdictional bases for their complaint from 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 1331 to 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 (1964).*fn3 The district court treated the complaint as having been amended to allege the new jurisdictional bases.

The language of N.Y. Election Law § 296 is similar to that of the Seventeenth Amendment. It provides that a United States Senator shall be "elected by the people * * *."*fn4 Plaintiffs claim that the execution and enforcement of this section so as to certify a candidate who received only a plurality of the votes violates their right under the Seventeenth Amendment to be represented by a Senator elected by a majority of the people. They also claim that Section 296 itself is unconstitutional because it makes no provision for a run-off election between the two leading candidates in the event that no candidate receives a majority vote at the general election.

Plaintiffs sought the following relief in the district court: (1) an injunction prohibiting the defendants from enforcing § 296 of the Election Law of the State of New York, and from "certifying thereunder" the election of any candidate as United States Senator unless a run-off election is held between the two candidates who polled the most votes; (2) a declaratory judgment that § 296 of the Election Law of the State of New York in failing to provide for a run-off election is too vague and inadequate to constitute a lawful "and constitutional exercise of the legislative power of the State of New York under the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States"; (3) a mandatory injunction ordering Governor Rockefeller to issue a writ for a run-off election between the two leading candidates, and (4) the convening of a three-judge statutory court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284 (1964).

Judge Edelstein dismissed plaintiffs' complaint and denied their motion for a three-judge court. As we think it unnecessary to pass upon the grounds relied upon by Judge Edelstein for dismissing the complaint, we merely note those grounds in the margin.*fn5

On December 7, 1970, plaintiffs moved this court to expedite the appeal and to grant an injunction pending appeal prohibiting defendants from certifying Mr. Buckley as the duly elected Senator from New York. We denied the injunction and heard argument of the appeal on December 9.

On the appeal, plaintiffs reiterate their arguments made below. Defendants contend that the district court was correct in holding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction and that no substantial federal question was raised; and they claim further that the district court lacked jurisdiction because only the Senate itself has jurisdiction over the legality of Senatorial elections under Article I, Section 5, Clause 1, of the Constitution,*fn6 and finally that the decision below should be affirmed on the grounds of prematurity, abstention, failure to include the interested candidates as indispensable parties, and the bar of the Eleventh Amendment. Counsel for James Buckley filed a brief amicus curiae and argued that the Seventeenth Amendment was not meant to require the election of Senators by a majority of the people.

Since we find this case so clear on its merits, we do not reach the procedural and jurisdictional points relied on by the district court and argued by defendants on this appeal.

Plaintiffs' argument that the Seventeenth Amendment requires Senators to be elected by a majority of the people is admittedly novel; but just as surely, in view of the history and intent of that amendment, it is devoid of merit. When the Seventeenth Amendment was being formulated in 1909-1912, prior to its adoption in 1913, the drafters made a deliberate choice to use the words "elected by the people" in the light of the prior history of the selection of Senators.

Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution as originally drafted provided that "The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, * *." This language was construed in practical application to mean election by a plurality of the legislators of a state until July 25, 1866. On that date, a statute enacted by the 39th Congress requiring that Senators be chosen by a majority of the legislators became effective. Hence in 1912, when the drafters of a constitutional amendment calling for popular elections of Senators embarked on the task of providing for such elections, they had before them the language of the 1866 statute requiring a majority. Indeed all the Senators then in office had been elected according to the 1866 statute. Yet the draftsmen chose not to use the word "majority" in the amendment.

Instead, Congress chose to follow the constitutional language of Article I, Section 2, which provides that members of the House of Representatives shall be "chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, * * *." Since the purpose of the Seventeenth Amendment was to effect the popular election of Senators, its draftsmen naturally looked to the provision of the Constitution providing for the manner of election to that house of Congress whose members had always been elected by popular vote. Plaintiffs themselves agree with this conclusion for they state in their brief that when the method of choosing Senators "was changed in 1913 the method of electing Representatives was plainly intended to be applied to Senators."

The key question, then, involves the meaning of the language in Article I, Section 2, "chosen by the People." It seems clear that that language was not intended to mean that a candidate must receive a majority of the votes cast at the general election in order to be elected to the House of Representatives. When the framers of the Constitution intended that a majority be required, they were quite capable of saying so. Thus in Article II, Section 1, of the ...


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