This is not wholly unrelated to this question on history.stackexchange.com .

A few days ago if you had asked me who would be the addressee of a United States senator's letter of resignation, I would have guessed the president of the Senate (who is the vice-president of the United States).

Two relevant facts are:

  • Originally U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures; and
  • Their salaries have always come from the federal budget, not state budgets.

I find it asserted elsewhere on the internet that the rule is that the addressee of the resignation letter is the governor of the state represented by the senator. I find reliable sources saying

  • Senator Barack Obama of Illinois wrote his resignation letter to Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, to be effective November 16, 2008; and
  • Senator Moses Robinson of Vermont handed his resignation letter to Governor Thomas Chittenden of Vermont in a face-to-face meeting on October 15, 1796, to be effective immediately.

So I have these questions:

  • Is there a law that says the governor is to be the addressee of a U.S. senator's letter of resignation?
  • Might this be based only on precedent rather than on legislation? If so, what was the occasion? The first-ever resignation of a senator? Or some later resignation? The second or third or . . . ?
  • Has it been done that way in every case of a resignation of a U.S. senator (more than 300, it seems)?
  • 2
    Wouldn't it be the governor who appoints interim senator? In which case, the resignation definitely makes sense to go to him.
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 4:12
  • It may make sense, but I am wondering whether it's codified or just following precedent, and to what extent it can be considered a law. Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 17:44
  • I'm not even sure it makes sense. Article 1, Section 5 of the US Constitution provides that "Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members..." Since the Senate itself is the sole judge of who is actually a Senator, it stands to reason that a Senator that wishes to resign must communicate that wish to the Senate for the resignation to be effective. Notifying the Governor might be a courtesy, but I can't see how it would be either necessary or sufficient to effect the resignation.
    – Nobody
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 12:15
  • @RPL : And yet it is actually done that way. In the days when state legislators elected senators, senators might have been seen as agents of the state. Commented May 4, 2017 at 15:26
  • @MichaelHardy Senators were never agents of the state. They were elected by state legislatures, but they have always been federal officers. An agent is someone who acts on behalf on a principal. Senators were not bound by the desires of the state, could not be overruled by the state, and were not subject to recall.
    – cpast
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 16:42

1 Answer 1


This Resignation Letter is Not Required by Law

Law does not require an outgoing senator to send a letter to anyone. I checked the federal Senate rules, federal statute, as well as the laws of Illinois and Kansas. I also checked the Kansas administrative regulations. None of these sources require a resigning senator to do anything.

Although I didn't do any special search to look for legal decisions which require these letters, my general web search did not uncover anything which suggests these letters are required by any form of law (whether it be statute, regulation, or judicial decision).

An Explanation

I called the Senate Parliamentarian's office to ask about this, but unfortunately they were not interested in answering my question during session.

However, I did find Tom Coburn's resignation letter from 2014, which offers an explanation for these resignation letters. In his resignation letter, he says that he is telling the Governor so that they can schedule a special election to find a new senator. Per the Constitution, when a senator resigns the governor of their home state may fill their seat with a temporary appointment. Although the 17th amendment changed how senators are initially selected, it did not change the process for filling vacated seats. It's possible that the reason resigning senators have notified their governor has always been to notify the governor to start finding a replacement.

The Earliest Example is William Paterson

William Paterson in the first federal senator to have resigned. This is based on:

  • The question linked to on History.SE. The accepted answer is based on compiling data from Wikipedia.
  • The wikipedia page on senatorial resignation.
  • The observation that Paterson resigned in 1790, during the first Congress, which started in 1789. There isn't much time before that for someone else to resign.

Although not conclusive, taken as a whole it seems likely William Paterson was the first senator to resign.

  • This answer refers to an "outgoing senator". That phrase could mean a senator whose term of office is ending. But the question is about resignation before the end of the term of office, not about leaving office at the end of the term. Around the time I posted this question on law (dot) stackexchange (dot) com and the related question on history (dot) stackexchange (dot) com, I created the Wikipedia page on senatorial resignation, based in part on a posted answer to the question on history. I have no idea who was the addressee of William Paterson's resignation letter. Since you..... Commented May 3, 2017 at 17:29
  • ...say resignation letters are not required, can you tell us how a senator would go about resigning before the end of the six-year term without writing a letter? Do you have in mind that the senator who orally say "I resign" to the governor of the state or the president of the senate? Since the question is about modes of resignation before the end of the six-year term, your answer raises questions. Commented May 3, 2017 at 17:31
  • Please note the comments above. Commented May 3, 2017 at 17:59
  • 2
    @MichaelHardy - My suspicion is that there are no formal requirements for resigning from the senate. This wouldn't be unusual in politics, where much activity is entirely informal. However, I think I know a way to clear this up, but it'll have to wait until the next business day. Commented May 4, 2017 at 0:37
  • You wrote: "prior to election senators were selected by the legislature - a process which the Governor may have a hand in." But governors did and do have a role in filling mid-term vacancies in the Senate, as when a senator resigns. The Constitution of the United States says that when a mid-term vacancy happens, then unless the state legislature has provided some other method of filling the vacancy, the governor appoints a senator to serve the rest of the term. That's what governor Blagojevich of Illinois did when Senator Obama resigned in 2008. Commented May 4, 2017 at 19:16

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