The Illinois legislature made history Friday by impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich – the first governor in the state to meet such a fate – and set the stage for a trial in the Illinois Senate that could convict him and remove him from office.
While the 114-to-1 vote was hardly a surprise, it occurred more quickly than some observers initially expected, perhaps sped up by legislators' anger over the governor's decision to defy their wishes and appoint a replacement for President-elect Obama's vacated US Senate seat.
In its recommendation for impeachment, a House special panel included the charges detailed in the criminal complaint against Governor Blagojevich – that he tried to "sell" the US Senate seat, pressured the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial board members, and engaged in illegal "pay-to-play" politics. But the recommendation also laid out a broader array of complaints, stating that Blagojevich disregarded authority and procedure, advocating policies that disregarded state and federal laws, and violated laws in hiring and firing employees.
"I think they went out of their way to emphasize that this is a political rather than a judicial process," says Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield. "Their argument is [that] in the totality of the actions ... he has violated the oath of office through the abuse of power."
The governor is not backing down, however. In a press conference Friday afternoon, a defiant Blagojevich focused on some of the broader charges made against him, claiming that many of the offenses included in the article of impeachment were in fact accomplishments that benefit the people of Illinois and that required him to circumvent an uncooperative legislature.
He cited his efforts to expand health insurance and coverage and to push a program to import cheaper drugs from Canada, among other things.
"I took actions with the advice of lawyers and experts to find creative ways to use the executive authority of the governor to get real things done for people who rely on us," he declared. "In many cases, the things we did for people literally saved lives. I don't believe those are impeachable offenses."
Earlier in the day, returning from a snowy run while the House voted to impeach him, Blagojevich compared his circumstances to the short story, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner." At his press conference, Blagojevich again declared his innocence and stated his intention to fight to the end, while quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Ulysses," which ends "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
But if Blagojevich came out defiant and defensive, even quoting the Golden Rule and appearing with families who had benefited from his healthcare policies, the House was equally strong in members' statements supporting impeachment.
The evidence shows "a public servant who has betrayed his public office, who betrayed the public trust," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, who chaired the impeachment panel.
State Rep. Susan Mendoza called the report "astounding," and added that "the governor has clearly, clearly been unable to govern for far too long" and said that "it's been an ugly and shameful spectacle."
Most Illinoisans expect the impeachment to end with a conviction in the state Senate, where the drama now shifts.
"The governor has obviously lost the support of the legislature, but also the public support," says Professor Redfield, noting that his approval ratings are below 10 percent and that 78 percent of Illinois residents want the governor removed, according to a recent poll. "Those two things combined I think make it a done deal."
A new legislature convenes next Wednesday, and the new House may quickly decide to conduct its own impeachment vote, reaffirming the vote this week, while the new Senate will try to get the trial under way fairly quickly. It will be presided over by Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald.
The trial could be as quick as two or three weeks, or take much longer, depending on the sort of rules the Senate adopts and how much it decides to allow in terms of the governor's defense and cross-examination. It's also still uncertain whether some transcripts and as-yet unreleased evidence from the FBI tapes of Blagojevich's wiretapped phones will be allowed.
It's possible, say legal experts, that the broad array of offenses detailed in the impeachment could make for a longer trial, but the Illinois Senate is bound by no specific rules on how it conducts the trial or what it needs to consider.
"You're in uncharted territory about what the causes for impeachment are," says Robert Bennett, a professor at Northwestern University's law school, although the state Senate is still likely to recognize Blagojevich's right to enter evidence in his defense.