Beginning at noon Monday, the Illinois Senate will begin work on what is the trial of the century in Illinois. Actually, the impeachment trial of Gov. Rod Blagojevich is more like the trial of the last two and a half centuries.
Beginning at noon Monday, the Illinois Senate will begin work on what is the trial of the century in Illinois.
Actually, the impeachment trial of Gov. Rod Blagojevich is more like the trial of the last two and a half centuries. It is the first time since the 1830s that the chamber has conducted an impeachment trial and the first time ever it will sit in judgment of a sitting governor.
Although the trial is scheduled to begin Monday, there is a chance it could be delayed. Blagojevich said last week he is still talking with his legal team about going to court to stop the trial. However, University of Illinois law professor Andrew Leipold said he would be "astonished" if that tactic worked.
"It (impeachment) is something entrusted by the Constitution to the legislative branch of government," Leipold said. "He surely can't ask that the Senate not try him. The most he could ask for is a delay."
Absent a delay, here's what to expect.
There is only one article of impeachment approved by the House, but it lists 13 actions by Blagojevich that constitute abuses of power that the House said justify his removal from office.
Eight of those actions are actually detailed in an FBI affidavit summarizing Blagojevich telephone conversations secretly recorded by federal investigators. Those include the famous instance of Blagojevich allegedly trying to sell President Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. Most of the other instances involve Blagojevich offering to take official actions in exchange for campaign contributions.
The other five instances deal with Blagojevich snubbing the authority of the General Assembly and mismanaging state government. The impeachment article said that the acts constitute a "pattern of abuse of power" when they are considered under the "totality of evidence."
Prosecuting the case for the legislature is David Ellis, legal counsel to House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. Ellis served as legal counsel to the House impeachment committee that drafted the article of impeachment for which Blagojevich will stand trial. Ellis filed paperwork with the Senate last week saying he will be assisted by Michael Kasper, an attorney now in private practice, but who once served as legal counsel to Madigan, and Heather Weir Vaught, a staff attorney for House Democrats who also worked with the impeachment committee.
Space is reserved in the Senate chamber for defense attorneys, but it doesn't appear anyone will appear on behalf of Blagojevich. Noted Chicago defense attorney Ed Genson and Sam Adam Jr. sat through proceedings of the House impeachment committee. However, both said the rules under which the Senate will conduct the trial are unfair to Blagojevich and neither planned to attend the trial. Late Friday, Genson took it a step further and said he was dropping off Blagojevich's defense team entirely, both for impeachment and also for the pending federal corruption charges.
Citing the same fairness issue, Blagojevich said he, too, will boycott the proceedings.
Ellis filed a list of 13 people he wants to call as witnesses. Eight of them are lawmakers who served on the House impeachment committee. The lawmakers will be asked to testify on various instances of Blagojevich misconduct outlined in the impeachment article. For example, Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, will talk about Blagojevich's attempt to have members of the Chicago Tribune editorial board fired for writing critical editorials.
Ellis' list also includes other officials who testified before the House impeachment committee, such as Auditor General William Holland and former assistant U.S. attorney John Scully. Holland testified about audits his office conducted that were critical of state agency management while Scully testified about the difficulty investigators have in obtaining wiretaps.
Ellis also wants to question Daniel Cain, the FBI agent who compiled a 76-page affidavit summarizing the intercepted phone calls. It was unclear last week, though, if Cain will be allowed to testify.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has asked lawmakers not to question people involved in the on-going federal corruption investigation against Blagojevich. That means a number of potential witnesses are not available to be questioned at the trial.
Since Blagojevich said he won't participate in the trial, his legal team has not filed to have any witnesses called. It also appears the defense will not attempt to question the prosecution witnesses.
The trial will take place in the Senate chamber, which was not designed to be a courtroom. It's taking some reconfiguration to turn the place into a suitable setting for a trial.
The senators themselves will be in the chamber, although four of them will be displaced from their regular seats to make way for attorneys. Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald will preside over the trial and make legal rulings as a judge would in any court case. The difference here, though, is that the Senate can vote to overrule a ruling made by Fitzgerald.
Witnesses will testify from an area at the front of the chamber normally used by the Secretary of the Senate. Senators can pose questions to witnesses by writing them out and submitting them to Fitzgerald.
The Senate chamber is already equipped with cameras that are used to air regular proceedings on the Internet. The public can view this on the Senate's web page at ilga.gov/senate. The site's capacity is limited, however.
There is some public seating in the visitors' gallery in the chamber for people who want to watch the proceedings live. No one is allowed to use phones in the chamber while the trial is underway, including the public, news media and lawmakers.
No one is sure how long the trial will last, nor how long the Senate may deliberate before reaching a verdict. The trial schedule calls for the Senate to meet for six straight days beginning Monday. After a one-day break, the Senate will resume if necessary. But with Blagojevich not mounting a defense, the trial may not take even a week to conclude.
The Illinois Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate for a conviction. That means 40 of the chamber's 59 senators must find the governor guilty for him to be convicted and removed from office. The margin is extraordinary even by standards in the General Assembly. Any other action that requires an extraordinary vote by the legislature -- such as overriding a vetoed bill -- only requires a three-fifths vote of the chamber.
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or email@example.com.