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Wickham: Judge Burris on his own merits

Former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris (right) takes questions after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Tuesday announces Burris as his choice to fill President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat.

Former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris (right) takes questions after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Tuesday announces Burris as his choice to fill President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat.

In saying they won’t let Roland Burris fill the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, Democrats controlling the Senate said Burris would be “plagued by questions of impropriety” if they let his appointment stand.

That reeks more of political bluster than concern about good governance.

Burris is the former Illinois state attorney general named by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to replace Obama, who gave up his seat after winning the presidential election. Burris’ selection comes three weeks after a federal prosecutor charged Blagojevich with trying to sell the Senate seat for personal gain.

Blagojevich claims he’s committed no crime, even as a committee of the Illinois legislature holds impeachment hearings and federal prosecutors press ahead with their case. There were mounting calls for Blagojevich not to fill the vacant Senate seat with this legal cloud hanging over his head.

But despite the seriousness of the charges against him, Blagojevich retains the constitutional authority to fill the Senate seat — and Senate Democrats should not reject Burris’ appointment out of hand.

“Please don’t allow the allegations against me to taint a good and honest man,” Blagojevich said in announcing his selection. “This is about Roland Burris as a U.S. senator, not about the governor who made the appointment.”

But as news of Burris’ selection leaked, Senate Democrats said they would stop him from taking office. This “is not about Mr. Burris, it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat,” Democrats said in a statement.

“Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois” and will not be allowed to take a seat in Congress, the Democrats went on to say.

Senate Democrats were aided and abetted in this bad judgment call by President-elect Obama. While calling Burris “a good man and a fine public servant,” Obama said he agreed with the Senate’s opposition to his appointment because Blagojevich “is accused of selling this very Senate seat.”

To accept this tortured reasoning is to treat a mere accusation as proof of criminal behavior. The charges against Blagojevich are serious, but Obama and the Senate’s Democratic majority need to be reminded they are just that — charges.

I’m not suggesting Senate Democrats should be unmindful of the federal prosecutor’s claim that Blagojevich is corrupt.

But since the Illinois governor has neither been convicted of a crime nor impeached by state lawmakers, his choice to fill Obama’s Senate seat should not be rejected without good cause.

Under the Constitution, the Senate has the authority to “be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members.”

So instead of announcing a knee-jerk rejection of Burris — even as they say they “respect his years of public service” — Senate Democrats should take a more deliberative approach to his appointment.

They should hold a hearing to determine if Burris bought his way into the Senate — something no one has accused him of doing. If he didn’t, they should let him take a seat among them.

Senate Democrats should not lump Burris and Blagojevich together. It makes no sense to say a man they know to be upstanding can’t be allowed to fill the Senate vacancy because the governor who appointed him is accused of wrongdoing.

What the Senate doesn’t need is a posse of Democrats gunning for an accused governor and making collateral damage of a man widely considered a class act.

DeWayne Wickham is a Maryland-based columnist who wriites for USA TODAY. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com.

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