Rep. Duncan D. Hunter at a forum in Ramona earlier this year. Photo by Ken Stone

After Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the misuse of the campaign funds of her husband, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, questions arose about what would happen if his seat is vacated by reason of resignation or expulsion from Congress.

A court hearing is scheduled July 1 in the criminal case against the Republican congressman, with a trial date tentatively set for September.

As Hunter’s defense attorney, Gregory Vega, spars with federal prosecutors, it is possible that a plea deal could be reached, with Hunter’s resignation from the East County district being one of the requirements set out by prosecutors.

Or, the congressman might opt to go to trial in an attempt to prove his innocence.

If he resigns, then California Gov. Gavin Newsom could call for a special congressional election in the 50th District. There are many precedents for this in California.

For example, in 1983, following the death of Congressman Philip Burton, a special election was held in which his wife Sala was elected to the 5th District seat. Four years later, after Sala’s death, another special election was held and Nancy Pelosi, today the Speaker of the House, was elected.

In 1998, Congressman Sonny Bono died, prompting a special election in the 44th Congressional District in which his wife, Mary, was elected. Bono previously had been married to singer Cher, with whom he had performed as Sonny and Cher.

Closer to home, after Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham resigned in 2006 following his guilty plea to tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, and wire fraud, a special election was held, which was won by Brian Bilbray.

But suppose that Hunter is convicted and he refuses to resign his congressional seat. At that point, the House Ethics Committee could decide whether to recommend expulsion from Congress for a vote by the full House of Representatives.

Expelling Hunter would require an affirmative vote by two-thirds of the House members, according to a provision in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. In the event that occurred, Gov. Newsom could then schedule a special election.

According to Wikipedia, expulsion from Congress is comparatively rare, with a vote of censure the more common punishment for misdeeds.

Two congressmen who were expelled in recent memory were Michael Myers of Pennsylvania on charges of bribery, and Jim Traficant of Ohio following his conviction on multiple counts including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion.

Other members of Congress resigned from office before efforts to expel them came to a vote.

In the 2018 election following his indictment and being stripped of his committee assignments in Congress, Hunter narrowly defeated Democratic opponent Ammar Campa-Najjar, with 51.7 percent of the vote. Normally, the 50th District is considered a safe Republican district because of a heavy GOP registration advantage.

Campa-Najjar already has announced plans to run again, while several potential Republican candidates are said to be waiting in the wings, pending the outcome of the charges against Hunter.

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