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Season 1, episode 6 of The West Wing, “Mr. Willis of Ohio”, features the titular Mr Willis, who is a school-teacher temporarily filling the seat of his recently departed wife in the House of Representatives.

Assuming the show is any way accurate, what mechanism allows this to happen? Wouldn’t the seat remain empty until a special election is held to appoint a new Representative? Is the fact he was the former Rep.’s husband relevant?

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    Since it's fiction, they could have fictional laws...
    – Fizz
    Dec 20 '20 at 11:01
  • Actually if his wife died during the 2nd half of her term, maybe it is possible history.house.gov/Institution/Vacancies-Successors/… "All states, territories, and districts require special elections to fill any vacant House seats during the first session of a Congress. During the second session of a Congress, however, procedures often vary depending on the amount of time between the vacancy and the next general election. "
    – Fizz
    Dec 20 '20 at 11:10
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    @Fizz yes, it’s fiction but based on real-life. Hence my question.
    – Darren
    Dec 20 '20 at 11:16
  • The relevant Ohio law for federal HoR vacancies was modified in 2007. Since West Wing was shot well before that, if you want complete historical accuracy, you'd have to check the old law.
    – Fizz
    Dec 20 '20 at 11:42
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Assuming the show is any way accurate, what mechanism allows this to happen?

On the wiki page at fandom.com for Mr. Willis of Ohio it is specifically noted, as an error, that —

Nobody is ever "appointed" to fill a seat in the House of Representatives, as is depicted in this episode. A special election is us (sic) called for normally when a vacancy opens up.


Wouldn’t the seat remain empty until a special election is held to appoint a new Representative?

Yes, both the US Constitution and Ohio law require a special election.

Article I, Section 2, Clause 4:

When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.

Specifically for Ohio,

[...] All vacancies in other elective offices shall be filled for the unexpired term in such manner as may be prescribed by this constitution or by law.

When a vacancy in the office of representative to congress occurs, the governor, upon satisfactory information thereof, shall issue a writ of election directing that a special election be held to fill such vacancy in the territory entitled to fill it on a day specified in the writ.


Is the fact he was the former Rep.’s husband relevant?

It was sometimes the case that a "widow would replace her congressman husband." The precedent, having been established, could be updated as "widower replaces congresswoman wife."

Widow's succession: Overview

In earlier years, women who held office through widow's succession rarely became prominent as politicians in their own right, but were regarded merely as placeholders whose primary role was to retain a seat and a vote for the party rather than risk a protracted fight for the nomination between elections. The practice was also sometimes seen as a way to provide the woman with financial support due to the loss of her family's primary income.

The expectation was that a widow would serve only until the next election, at which time she would step down and allow her party to select a new candidate.

However, some went on to become notable in their own right.

United States, as of 2013, is list of women who succeeded their husbands in Congress.


An observation

Given that the original air date for Mr. Willis of Ohio was November 3, 1999, it is possible that the episode was inspired by the death of singer and actor Sonny Bono (CA-44) on January 5, 1998, and the subsequent election of Mary Bono to complete the term.

The special election was held April 7, 1998. Mary Bono's primary competitor was actor Ralph Waite.

Bono is the second widow to win her husband's House seat in California this year. On March 10, Democrat Lois Capps won a special election in Santa Barbara to succeed her husband, Walter, who died last fall. Since 1916, the first year that a woman was elected to the House of Representatives, 37 of the 39 widows who have sought their late husbands' House seats have been elected, according to the Republican National Committee.

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    "When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies." That means the governor appoints somebody. Why are you saying this wouldn't happen when the clause from the Constitution that you cite says explicitly that it would? Dec 20 '20 at 18:21
  • Is the Senate different? Because ballotpedia describes Kelley Loeffler as appointed. The Special election is happening now and she is the incumbent.
    – Jontia
    Dec 20 '20 at 18:52
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    @MichaelHardy you seem to have glossed over the fact it says “...shall issue writs of election...”, so the Governor will order the holding of an election, rather than appoint someone themself.
    – Darren
    Dec 20 '20 at 18:55
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    @Jontia - Is the Senate different? Yes, Seventeenth Amendment: When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct. Kelley Loeffler was appointed, now the people have their say.
    – Rick Smith
    Dec 20 '20 at 21:59
  • Really an excellent answer. Above and beyond in not only answering the question but providing historical and episode specific context.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 21 '20 at 18:10
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To summarize my (prior) comments on the issue here, this is seemingly more feasible for the state legislature of Ohio.

Ohio's constitution allows swapping the deceased with another representative from the same party, with no broad-based election, but a vote on the floor of the legislature. And on closer reading, it's only the members of the (state) House caucus of the party of the deceased that actually vote on that matter, so it's like a floor primary of sorts for the Ohio state legislature vacancies. Maybe West Wing applied some poetic license and used/assumed that procedure for federal vacancies...

A vacancy in the Senate or in the House of Representatives for any cause, including the failure of a member-elect to qualify for office, shall be filled by election by the members of the Senate or the members of the House of Representatives, as the case may be, who are affiliated with the same political party as the person last elected by the electors to the seat which has become vacant. [...] An election to fill a vacancy shall be accomplished, notwithstanding the provisions of section 27, Article II of this constitution, by the adoption of a resolution, while the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, is in session, with the taking of the yeas and nays of the members of the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, affiliated with the same political party as the person last elected to the seat in which the vacancy occurs. The adoption of such resolution shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of the members elected to the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, entitled to vote thereon. Such vote shall be spread upon the journal of the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, and certified to the secretary of state by the clerk thereof. The secretary of state shall, upon receipt of such certification, issue a certificate of election to the person so elected and upon presentation of such certificate to the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, the person so elected shall take the oath of office and become a member of the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, for the term for which he was so elected.

One interesting aspect of that process is that the replacement thus elected (by the party floor caucus) receives a certificate from the secretary of state seemingly in exactly same way as if elected by a broad-based election.

One has to wonder if this is not possible for federal elections as well, since the US constitution only says (Art I, sec 2) that a writ of election needs to be sent...

When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.

But if the secretary of state says an election happened (even if it was just in some partisan caucus)... here's the certificate... what then?

As far as the US HoR though, I think that would not fly because there is precedent since the 1960s for the HoR to override state laws and ever do their own recounts (in rare cases) when they considered the state election rules problematic. (The HoR rejected the state-certified result in at least two cases, and seated the opposing candidate.) I'm almost certain that would happen if a state decided to run such an replacement election in a partisan (or otherwise narrow) caucus.

This (refusal to seat) is constitutional because

based on Article I, Section 5 of the United States Constitution which states that, "Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members, [...]

The Supreme Court has limited the HoR's ability to refuse to seat in some circumstances, but those limitations are predicated by someone being "duly elected" in the first place.

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  • 2 U.S. Code § 8 - Vacancies provides that -- "In extraordinary circumstances, the executive authority of any State in which a vacancy exists in its representation in the House of Representatives shall issue a writ of election to fill such vacancy by special election." However, the "extraordinary circumstances" mentioned only occur when "vacancies in the representation from the States in the House exceed 100." Even when things are bad, a special election is required.
    – Rick Smith
    Dec 21 '20 at 5:28
  • @RickSmith: you're probably a bit confused about that. The 100-vacancies rule allows the executive to make appointments. I'm saying that what is a valid election is ultimately up to the HoR to decide (Art I sec 5). And the writ of elections is from Art I sec 2.
    – Fizz
    Dec 21 '20 at 5:42
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States may appoint a congressperson or senator to fill a vacant seat upon death or resignation, until a special election can be held.

You may remember the Rod Blagojevich episode, where he as governor of Illinois was taking bribes to alter the appointment of a senator to replace Obama's senate seat when he was elected president.

That appointment would only last until a special election could be held, but such appointments often position the person to make a run for the seat in the special election.

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    A senator may be appointed, but not a representative. The question refers to the House of Representatives.
    – Rick Smith
    Dec 21 '20 at 2:42
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Article I, Section 2, Clause 4 of the Constitution of the United States says:

When vacancies happen in the Representation from any state, the executive authority thereof shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies.

"Executive authority" means what today we call the governor. At the time when this was written, the executive authority in nine of the thirteen states was called the governor of the state; in three states (South Carolina, Delaware, and New Hampshire) he was called the president of the state; and in one state, Pennsylvania, the executive authority was called the executive council of the state and consisted of three men, one of whom was the president of the executive council.

(After the Constitution went into effect, the head of the federal government was called the president, so the states that used that title decided to amend their constitutions so that the term "governor" was used instead.)

In other words, the governor of the state concerned appoints a replacement.

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    Doesn't "writs of election" mean they call a special election, not appoint a replacement themselves?
    – Barmar
    Dec 20 '20 at 20:21
  • @Barmar according to Wikipedia, yes.
    – Darren
    Dec 20 '20 at 21:48
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    ArtI.S2.C1.2 Electors for the House: The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, .... Gubernatorial appointments would violate this clause of the Constitution.
    – Rick Smith
    Dec 20 '20 at 22:02

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