Can a U.S. senator continue to be a member of the upper chamber of Congress if he or she has been convicted of a felony?
The question arises because a federal jury is weighing a verdict in the trial of Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens. The Senate's longest-serving Republican is being tried on seven felony charges of lying about alleged gifts on financial disclosure forms. Stevens is also trying to get re-elected to an eighth term Nov. 4.
The answer, it seems, is a definite "maybe". US Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie says there have been only eleven U.S. senators in more than two centuries who've been indicted while serving. Of those, not one was expelled by fellow senators. An expulsion requires the backing of at least a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Most either resigned to avoid expulsion or were acquitted of the charges against them before the Senate took action.
According to Ritchie, the Senate can essentially do anything it wants to about indicted or convicted members. "The US Constitution gives the Senate tremendous latitude to judge the qualifications of its members," says Ritchie, "and historically the Senate's been very reluctant to expel such members."
Instead, the Senate has generally preferred to wait for the appeals process to play out for a member convicted of a felony. A member such as Stevens, even if he is convicted and then re-elected, would likely be "seated without prejudice" -- that is, allowed to be sworn in once again, but subject to further action by the Senate if an appeal is rejected. If that were to happen, the matter would likely be dealt with by either the Rules or Ethics committee before being taken up by the full Senate.