Many want Blagojevich out, but how?

An impeachment probe is under way in the Illinois House. A petition is also before the state’s high court.

Morry Gash/AP
Gov. Rod Blagojevich has shown no signs of yielding his seat voluntarily.

The calls to step down are deafening, but Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich started his week at the office by signing a dozen bills – including one that federal prosecutors tagged as possibly involving the “pay to play” tactics that have engulfed the governor in ignominy.

With Governor Blagojevich showing no signs of yielding his seat voluntarily, state officials and lawmakers are pursuing other tactics to remove him – or at least strip him of his ability to name the next junior senator from Illinois.

On Monday, the Illinois House voted unanimously to launch an impeachment probe – the first ever for a governor here – and the special committee to investigate the option held its first meeting Tuesday. In separate action, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked the Illinois Supreme Court to temporarily remove Blagojevich from office – an unprecedented action but one she argues might be quicker than impeachment.

“This is all totally uncharted territory,” says Dawn Clark Netsch, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s law school and a delegate to Illinois’s Constitutional Convention in 1970, noting that any action is likely to set important precedents. “Everybody wants him out of there, but we have to be careful about what we’re doing for the future.”

Federal officials charged Blagojevich, a Democrat, on Dec. 9 with conspiracy to commit fraud and solicitation of bribery.

The last impeachment in Illinois was of a judge in 1833, but he was not convicted.

The state constitution lays out no standards for impeachment, and no one knows how long the process will take. If the special committee votes to proceed with impeachment, the resolution would move to the full House.

If a majority of state representatives votes for the resolution, it would then move to the Illinois Senate, which would conduct an impeachment trial. For Blagojevich to be ousted, two-thirds of the senators would have to vote to convict.

The process “could be very streamlined,” says Prof. Mark Rosen at Chicago-Kent College of Law, noting that it depends on how House Speaker Michael Madigan (the attorney general’s father) decides to proceed. Still, there is need to avoid the appearance of a rush to judgment given the possibility that the case could turn out differently than people expect. Speaker Madigan “has a troubled history with the governor, so he wants to make sure the process seems well-considered and fair,” Mr. Rosen says.

Attorney General Madigan’s move is more unusual and without precedent. She relies on a clause in the state constitution in her request that the Illinois Supreme Court declare Blagojevich unable to serve because of “disability.” If they don’t remove him from office – temporarily installing Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn – Madigan is asking the court at least to strip him of his ability to appoint Barack Obama’s replacement in the US Senate and to act on bills, contracts, or state financial matters.

The clause exists to address cases in which a governor is physically or mentally incapacitated, says Prof. Ronald Smith at John Marshall Law School, a member of the committee that drafted that article of the constitution. “It never occurred to us we’d have anything like this.”

Professor Smith, like others, says it’s unlikely the court will accede to the request, because of the precedent it could set. “I don’t see the Illinois Supreme Court going out on a limb when there is an available remedy in the constitution,” he says.

One option that has been ruled out: legislation to set up a special election to elect the next senator.

Blagojevich has left open the possibility that he would sign such a bill, but lawmakers declined to consider it despite urging from Republican colleagues. Democrats worry that backlash against the governor would make voters more likely to elect a Republican senator.

“If you have the power to keep the US Senate seat on the Democratic side, you’re not going to give it away lightly,” says Smith.

President-elect Obama continues to face questions about contacts his staff may have had with Blagojevich about his Senate replacement. He said Monday that an internal review has corroborated his earlier statements that his staff had done nothing improper, but that he is holding off on releasing the report at the request of the US Attorney’s office.

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