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Who will lead during emergency?
Constitution leaves open governor’s succession

By M.J. Ellington · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — If Alabama’s governor were suddenly unable to carry out his duties, there are provisions in the state constitution that detail the official who would do so.

The first in line is the lieutenant governor, unless there is a problem.

Questions about line of succession came up this year because Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley had a stroke the day before Thanksgiving and is undergoing speech and physical therapy at a Birmingham-area rehabilitation hospital.

Baxley’s chief of staff, John Hamm, said Tuesday that the lieutenant governor is in frequent contact with her office and conducting business. Gov. Bob Riley, by all accounts, is perfectly healthy.

Fuzzy succession

But if for some reason neither Riley nor Baxley could perform the duties of governor between now and the Legislature’s organizational session Jan. 9, then the next in line gets a little fuzzy.

The Senate president pro tem is normally second in line to the governor.

But in years when the state elects the governor, lieutenant governor and all members of the Legislature, there is a two-month period between the general election in November and the Legislature’s organizational session in January when there is no Senate president pro tem.

The initial goal was to avoid a lame duck Legislature, but a quirk in the Alabama constitution makes the speaker of the House of Representatives third in the line of succession during that two-month period.

Members of the Legislature take office the day after the general election under constitutional rules. At that point, constitutional historians and political scientists say, appointments to all Senate committees and the previous pro tem election no longer apply. In contrast, the speaker of the House continues in office until House members elect the next speaker at the organizational session.

“Normally, the presiding officer in the Senate is the lieutenant governor who would carry on business between sessions, but in the House, it is the speaker,” said House clerk Greg Pappas. For that reason, the constitution stipulates that the House speaker continue in office until members of the House elect a successor in the organizational session.

“The intent was to avoid having a lame duck Legislature called into session to pass a bunch of bills between the election and the organizational session,” said retired University of Alabama political science professor and constitutional expert Bill Stewart.

“This is only one of the ways the constitution does not provide complete directions on some things while going in to great lengths on other things of lesser consequence,” Stewart said.

Rare occurrence

Since Alabama became a state in 1819, a lieutenant governor assumed duties of governor on a six occasions during the 20th century. So far, there has never been a need to go further down the line of succession.

On two occasions in the past half-century, the lieutenant governor served out the rest of a governor’s term.

In April, 1995, then Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom became governor after Guy Hunt was convicted of felony misuse of his inaugural funds.

In May, 1968, Lt. Gov. Albert P. Brewer, formerly of Decatur, succeeded Lurleen B. Wallace, who died May 5, 1968.

Lieutenant governors assumed temporary duties as governor at other times, including after the attempted assassination of then Gov. George C. Wallace in Laurel, Md., on June 5, 1972. Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley served as acting governor until Wallace returned to the state July 7 of that year.

Other than the two-month exception during election years, the constitution does specify a clear line of succession. It includes lieutenant governor, Senate president pro tem, speaker of the House, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and treasurer.

The constitution says that if the governor is out of the state for an extended period of time, dies or is too ill to perform usual duties of the office, the lieutenant governor assumes those duties.

Athens State University political scientist Jess Brown believes there may be a way for the Senate to come into special session and elect a president pro tem to fill in as governor if needed. So far, the state has never had such a need.

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