HARRISBURG — State Senate Republicans are considering refusing to seat a newly-elected Democrat when the new session begins Jan. 1.
GOP Senate members say Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny County, has been unable to prove to their satisfaction that she’s lived in Pennsylvania long enough to satisfy the Constitutional qualifications for being a member of the Senate.
The state Constitution says senators must have lived in Pennsylvania for four years prior to their election.
Democrats say the Republicans, like their counterparts in other states, are flouting the will of the people by refusing to seat Williams, who beat Republican Jeremy Shaffer in November. Shaffer defeated incumbent Sen. Randy Vulakovich in the Republican primary.
At issue is when exactly Williams moved to Pennsylvania. She maintains that she’d moved to Pennsylvania by November 2014, but Republicans say it’s not clear she was residing here.
Williams has submitted a packet of information, including affidavits from friends who say she was living in Pennsylvania in time to qualify for her Senate seat.
Republicans remain unconvinced. On Thursday, Senate Republican leaders sent her a letter requesting that she provide tax records that would demonstrate when she started paying taxes in Pennsylvania, said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman.
“Sen.-elect Lindsey Williams continues to play fast and loose with the state Constitution in a bid to retain her grip on power in the state Senate,” said state Republican Party spokesman Jason Gottesman.
But Democrats say it’s Republicans who playing political games.
“The attacks against Senator-elect Williams are only happening because the Pennsylvania Republican Party, like their counterparts across the country, are sore losers,” Pennsylvania Democratic Party Executive Director Sinceré Harris said.
“From Wisconsin to Michigan to North Carolina, and now Pennsylvania, the Republican Party has stooped to trying to subvert the will of the people and attempting to flout the democratic process as a last resort when they cannot win elections.”
The controversy over Williams’ qualifications may not rise to the level of what’s happened in Wisconsin where the outgoing Legislature and outgoing Gov. Scott Walker have moved to limit the power of the incoming Democratic Gov. John Kaul, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University.
“It’s a little different because that’s more of a naked power play” in Wisconsin, Leckrone said. “This one seat won’t make much of a difference to the Legislature as a whole.”
Leckrone said he suspects the spat may be partly driven by lingering animosity over not just the election results but some of the campaign tactics.
Republican leaders were bitterly annoyed that Democrats ran ads targeting moderate Republicans over the Senate Republicans’ unwillingness to pass legislation to allow victims of priest abuse to file lawsuits. The incumbent Republican senators who paid the price for that by losing the election – Sen. John Rafferty and Sen. Thomas McGarrigle – were moderates who’d backed the idea of allowing the lawsuits, he said.
If Senate Republicans do opt to refuse to seat Williams, it’s far from clear that she’ll have much luck challenging their move, said Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
The state Constitution gives the Senate the power to determine whether members are qualified to serve.
If there was an obvious case of abuse, such as the Senate was refusing to seat someone who had clearly always lived in Pennsylvania, it might be more likely that a judge would see fit to intervene. But in case, such as this one, where there is room to question, judges may be unwilling to intercede, Antkowiak said.
“The deference is given to the Legislature to decide the basic qualifications of their members,” he said. “The remedy is political as opposed to a judicial remedy.”
The political remedy would be for voters to hold lawmakers accountable if they’ve acted improperly.
“If people get outraged, they will exact the penalty at the ballot box,” Antkowiak said.