Blagojevich Impeachment Trial Set To Begin

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich at a news conference last week i i

hide captionThe Illinois Senate is scheduled to begin an impeachment trial for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Monday. During a news conference Friday in Chicago, the governor said the trial is "a trampling of the Constitution."

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich at a news conference last week

The Illinois Senate is scheduled to begin an impeachment trial for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Monday. During a news conference Friday in Chicago, the governor said the trial is "a trampling of the Constitution."

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The impeachment trial of Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich begins Monday in the Illinois Senate. He's already been impeached by the state House for his alleged attempt to sell Barack Obama's former seat in the U.S. Senate.

But rather than go to the state capital of Springfield to defend himself against charges that he has abused the power of his office, Blagojevich will instead be in New York trying to court public opinion by appearing on TV shows, including ABC's Good Morning America and The View and CNN's Larry King Live.

There, he will continue to make the case that the impeachment proceedings against him are unfair, and he will try to convince people that he is the victim in this vast political corruption scandal.

"The heart and soul of this has been a struggle of me against the system," Blagojevich said at a news conference in Chicago on Friday, as he kicked off a media blitz to try to salvage his image, if not his job.

Blagojevich, who was arrested in December and charged with what the U.S. attorney in Chicago calls a "political corruption crime spree," is making some interesting analogies to his plight. In his news conference and in interviews on sympathetic talk radio programs, Blagojevich referred to Dec. 9 — the day FBI agents woke him and took him from his home in handcuffs — as his own Pearl Harbor Day.

He also compared himself to the Jimmy Stewart character in the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, saying he's fighting against a "political industrial complex."

In one radio interview, Blagojevich said, "I like to think of myself as Teddy Roosevelt." The 26th president made a legendary charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War and took on the political and business establishment in the early part of the last century.

Then Blagojevich brought up his fondness for cowboy movies, comparing himself to a Gary Cooper-like character in an old Western who was wrongfully accused of rustling cattle or stealing horses. Even in the old, wild West, he said, someone usually called for a fair trial before hanging the accused.

"Under these rules, I'm not even getting a fair trial. They're just hanging me," Blagojevich said. "And when they hang me under these rules that prevent due process, they're hanging the 12 million people of Illinois who twice have elected a governor."

Blagojevich said the rules adopted by the Illinois Senate for his impeachment trial this week are unfair and a total sham.

"To be part of a process that doesn't allow for calling of witnesses and, worse than that, doesn't allow for me or any citizen to challenge charges that are brought against me is a fundamental violation of the Constitution; it is a trampling of the Constitution."

The Rules Of Evidence

Those who will be judging him this week disagree.

"I think he's misreading the rules," said Democrat John Cullerton, president of the Illinois Senate, who chaired the committee that drafted the rules for the impeachment trial. Coincidentally, he lives just two blocks from Blagojevich on Chicago's North Side.

"It is not a criminal case. It's not about his liberty; it's about his job. And there are definitely different rules than a criminal trial," Cullerton added.

Cullerton said that because there has been no impeachment trial in Illinois in well over a century, the state Senate modeled its rules on the U.S. Senate's trial of President Clinton a decade ago and the impeachment trial of Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham in 1988.

While Blagojevich complains that he cannot call his own witnesses in his defense, the rules state the governor can call anyone who's willing to appear voluntarily. But the rules also state that neither side can subpoena anyone whose testimony might undermine the federal criminal case against the governor, per the request of the U.S. attorney's office.

Had senators not adopted that rule, federal prosecutors indicated they would have gone to court to prevent certain witnesses from testifying in the impeachment trial.

Blagojevich also complains that the transcript of the special Illinois House committee that brought the impeachment charges against him will be entered as evidence, even though those charges are just accusations and not proven.

But Cullerton said the rules also allow the governor to introduce evidence contradicting what is in the House record. For example, Blagojevich may not be able to subpoena White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — as he has said he wants to do — but he can enter into the Senate record as evidence a transcript or tape of Emanuel's recent Meet the Press interview, in which Emanuel said the governor did not try to cut a deal with him in appointing a successor to President Obama in the U.S. Senate.

"The rules of evidence are actually, unlike a trial, very broad and very open," Cullerton said. "The governor can introduce evidence like that or even hearsay evidence if he thought [it] would help him."

An Unbiased Impeachment Trial?

Cullerton said the impeachment trial will be as fair as possible without the governor or his attorneys attending.

But Jeffrey Shaman, a constitutional law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, said impeachment trials are really more political procedures than fair trials and cannot be completely unbiased. Under the Illinois Constitution, senators only need to find cause to remove the governor from office, and they get to define what cause is.

Shaman said there is a remedy for the governor: "If there is any unfairness here, instead of boycotting the procedure, the governor and his attorneys should go to the trial and they should, on a charge by charge basis, argue to the Senate that there is not sufficient evidence to convict on this particular charge."

Instead, the governor will spend what will likely be one of his few remaining days in office making the rounds of TV studios in New York, trying to salvage what's left of his flagging political career.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: