Was It Fair to Remove Blagojevich from Office?

It's the question no one really wants to dwell on too much: Did Rod Blagojevich get a raw deal? At this point, virtually everyone ...
by | January 29, 2009

It's the question no one really wants to dwell on too much: Did Rod Blagojevich get a raw deal?

At this point, virtually everyone thinks that Illinois is better off without Blagojevich as the state's governor. He embarrassed the state, he distracted from serious work that needed to get done and he very well might have engaged in criminal behavior.

Plus, it's pretty clear that Illinois legislators were within their rights to remove Blagojevich from office. The Illinois Constitution doesn't require that the governor have committed high crimes and misdemeanors to be removed. It doesn't require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It actually, so far as I can tell, doesn't require evidence of anything in particular for a governor to lose his job.

In a way, though, that makes evaluating the process of the Blagojevich proceedings more important. Without clear constitutional guidance, the legislature set a precedent as to what the standards will be to remove governors in the future. So, it's worth asking whether the standards they used were fair.

Blagojevich has made a bunch of arguments about the unfairness of the process, some of which are exaggerations. The Associated Press did a great job of checking the facts on many of the governor's claims. For example, he couldn't call witnesses on his own, but he could have asked for witnesses to be called. He didn't take advantage of that opportunity.

But, his antics aside, I do think Blagojevich has a point. The prospect of a criminal trial for the governor seriously limited his ability to defend himself during impeachment.

The governor was forbidden from calling as witnesses in the impeachment case some people who might be witnesses in the federal investigation against him -- in other words, the exact people who know best what Blagojevich did and didn't do.

Nor did any members of the Illinois legislature hear more than brief snippets of the recorded conversations that are the basis of the criminal complaint against Blagojevich. In other words, legislators in Illinois have, to a large extent, taken Patrick Fitzgerald at his word.

Even if that was a reasonable thing to do in this case, it's a questionable standard to set. It's easy to imagine a scenario where the governor is the ethical one and the U.S. Attorney is the one up to mischief. No criminal court in the United States would prevent a defendant from hearing the evidence against him or questioning the relevant witnesses.

Of course, the point that people make over and over again about Blagojevich's impeachment is that the process is political, not criminal. He's not going to jail (yet). He's merely being removed from office.

"Merely," though, isn't quite appropriate. Removing an elected official from office before his term is up, in effect suspending the standard rules of democracy, is a very serious thing. Why, exactly, shouldn't the standards of the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution also apply to impeachment proceedings?

In the end, all of this discussion of the process might be less important than I'm making it sound. The legislature had an obligation to do what's best for Illinois. Illinois, pretty clearly, needed a new governor. However, if the case resulted not only in a new governor, but also a new assessment of just how bad a public official has to behave to be impeached and convicted in Illinois and just how that process should work, something good might come out the tumultuous tenure of Rod Blagojevich.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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