Lame Duck

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Lame Duck

An elected official, who is to be followed by another, during the period of time between the election and the date that the successor will fill the post.

The term lame duck generally describes one who holds power when that power is certain to end in the near future. In the United States, when an elected official loses an election, that official is called a lame duck for the remainder of his or her stay in office. The term lame duck can apply to any person with decision-making powers, but it is usually refers to presidents, governors, and state and federal legislators.

When a legislature assembles between election day and the day that new legislators assume office, the meeting is called a lame-duck session. On the federal level, under the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Senate and the House of Representatives must convene on January 3 each year. Incoming legislators assume office that day, and outgoing legislators leave office that day. Thus, from the day after election day in November until late December, retiring and defeated legislators have time to pass more legislation.

Legislatures do not have to conduct lame-duck sessions. In fact, if many of their members will be new in the next legislative session, the idea of their defeated lawmakers voting on legislation may be criticized by the public—especially by those who voted for the incoming legislators. The issue of whether to conduct a session between mid-November and early January is usually decided by a vote of the legislators in office during the last session before the election. The legislature may elect to reconvene on a certain date, to adjourn at the call of the chair of either house or both houses, or to adjourn sine die (without planning a day to reconvene). Also, a lame-duck president or governor has the power to call a lame-duck session.

Lame-duck sessions may be called to pass emergency legislation for the immediate benefit or protection of the public during November or December. They also may be conducted for political purposes. For example, if a certain party stands to lose the presidency or governorship and seats in the new legislature, that party may seek to push through a few last pieces of legislation. Thus, lame-duck sessions can spawn hastily written legislation, and the finished product may be of dubious quality.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), also known as Superfund (42 U.S.C.A. § 9601 et seq.), is a piece of lame-duck legislation. This federal statute, which regulates the cleanup of toxic waste sites, was hurriedly passed by a lame-duck Congress and signed by lame-duck president jimmy carter in December 1980. Congress crafted the statute with virtually no debate and under rules that allowed for no amendments. CERCLA is regarded as problem ridden by persons on all sides of the environmental debate.

Further readings

Kuhnle, Tom. 1996. "The Rebirth of Common Law Action for Addressing Hazardous Waste Contamination." Stanford Environmental Law Journal 15.

Thurmond, William M. 1996. "CERCLA's 'All Appropriate Inquiry': When Is Enough, Enough?" Florida Bar Journal 70 (March).


Environmental Law.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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