The Improper Use of Senate Rule XIX To Stop Senator Warren from Speaking

As has been widely reported, the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (Rep., KY), on February 7 asserted an objection to the remarks of Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem., MA) and the objection was sustained by the presiding officer, Senator Steve Dawes (Rep., MT), and by the entire Senate, 49-43. As a result, Senator Warren was prevented from making any further remarks.

This occurred during the Senate’s consideration of whether to confirm the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General when Senator Warren was reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., complaining about Session as a U.S. attorney for allegedly “using the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black Americans.”

The asserted basis for the objection by McConnell was Senate Rule XIX, which states, “No Senator, in debate, shall “directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

This Rule rarely has been used since its adoption in 1902 after a fist-fight on the Senate floor between two senators over whether the Senate would approve a U.S. treaty to annex the Philippines. Its use by McConnell has been criticized widely as impolitic and sexual discrimination as the Rule has not been used to stop male senators from doing the same thing the next day and from previously making many derogatory remarks on the floor about other senators.

The Rule, closely and properly read, does not apply to this situation for at least two reasons.

First, the Rule refers to “conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator,” and here Warren was referring to Sessions’ conduct as a U.S. attorney before he became a senator.

Second, and more importantly, the matter under consideration was whether the Senate should confirm Sessions to be the next Attorney General and, therefore, whether he had the skills, background and character to hold this important office. Hence, his entire life was relevant on at least the character issue, and the opinion of an important U.S. citizen (Mrs. King) on his conduct as a U.S. attorney around 1986 is directly relevant to the issue of confirmation. Indeed, so is the senatorial record of  any senator who is undergoing Senate review as a cabinet nominee like Senator Sessions.

As a result, Senator McConnell should apologize to Senator Warren and the entire U.S. Senate for this improper use of Rule XIX.

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U.S. Senate, Rule XIX; Berman, A Brief History of the Senate Rule That Silenced Elizabeth Warren, Atlantic Magazine (Feb. 8, 2017);; Flegenheimer, Republican Senators Vote to Formerly Silence Elizabeth Warren, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2017); Lichtblau & Flegenheimer, Jeff Sessions Confirmed as Attorney General, Capping Legal Battle, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2017).