In 1978, Burris was the first African-American elected to statewide office in Illinois, when he was elected Illinois Comptroller. He served in that office until his election as Illinois Attorney General in 1990. Since then, he has run for office four more times unsuccessfully.
Burris was appointed by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to replace President-Elect Barack Obama as the junior senator from Illinois. The appointment was controversial, as the governor was already under investigation and there were rumors of his being paid for the appointment. Prior to Burris's appointment, Obama was the U.S. Senate's only African American; he resigned his Senate seat after being elected President of the United States. Burris was the subject of an ethics probe.
Calls for Burris's resignation from the Senate began after allegations were made that he had lied under oath about his contacts with associates of Blagojevich prior to his appointment. The Sangamon County State's Attorney's office and the Senate Ethics Committee are each investigating whether Burris perjured himself in his testimony before an Illinois House of Representatives committee in connection with the Blagojevich impeachment proceedings. On ABC's World News with Charles Gibson on May 27, 2009, a recording was played of Burris's conversation with Rod Blagojevich in which Burris is allegedly heard to be negotiating on the price for receiving Obama's Senate seat. Ethics charges were dropped against Burris in late June 2009, due to a lack of supporting evidence. The Senate Ethics Committee issued a letter on November 20, 2009, which, while admonishing him, stated that no ethics charges would be pursued. Although Burris did not run for election in November 2010, he fought a legal battle to retain his appointed Senate seat until January, commenting that the special election held in November to fill out the final weeks of his term was "totally unconstitutional", and that "the judge is selecting the candidates".