a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

A teachable impeachment moment?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 30th, 2009

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been removed from office by the state legislature, the Chicago Tribune‘s Ray Long and Rick Pearson report:

The Illinois Senate voted to remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office Thursday, marking the first time in the state’s long history of political corruption that a chief executive has been impeached and convicted.

The 59-0 vote followed several hours of public deliberation in which senator after senator stood up to blast Blagojevich, whose tenure lasted six years. And it came after a four-day impeachment trial on allegations that Blagojevich abused his power and sold his office for personal and political benefit.

The thing is, people were starting to notice that the sale hadn’t been completed.  Josh Marshall noted “he often strikes me as genuinely clinical. But it’s not clear to me how strong a case they’ve got against this guy.” A December National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers article asked, “In Blagojevich Case, Is It a Crime, or Just Talk?“, and note “Mr. Fitzgerald’s decision to bypass a grand jury initially could signal a belief on his part that he did not yet have a fully prosecutable case on his hand.” As the Washington Post’s Bob Herbert put it earlier this week:

Trying to leverage a political appointment into a political advantage is not unprecedented. Doing so while talking like a character from “The Sopranos” is an aesthetic offense, but I’m not sure it’s a criminal one.

Had Blagojevich consummated a deal for personal gain in exchange for the appointment, Fitzgerald may have an open-and-shut case. But the governor didn’t consummate anything. He just talked and talked and talked, mostly about how nobody wanted to play ball with him. I question whether anything on the tapes is enough to put him in jail.

That may well be so — and it certainly had the considerable value of triggering a spluttering hissy fit from David Broder in yesterday’s Washington Post.  Yet within his own rebuttal, Broder conceded Robinson’s key point (emphasis added):

[Blagojevich’s] depredations did not begin with the Fitzgerald tapes. When I was in Springfield almost two years ago for a bipartisan dinner at the Lincoln Library, I was told by prominent Republicans and Democrats, including a widely admired former governor, that the Blagojevich administration was “the worst ever.”

At the time, Fitzgerald was already working his way up Blagojevich’s chain of command, bringing in one official after another, convicting them and then offering some leniency at sentencing in return for their testimony against higher-ups.

It was assumed at that dinner that eventually Fitzgerald would have the pieces in place to show that Blagojevich was at the center of this criminal conspiracy. It was the urgency of stopping the governor from carrying out his reported plan to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder that forced Fitzgerald to move when he did.

I.e., a crime (arguably) hadn’t happened yet.

And yet of the two, Broder is (unwittingly, of course) closer to being correct. That’s because the two pundits were arguing about the wrong thing — whether Blagojevich had provably committed a criminal offense.  In impeachment proceedings, that’s not the issue at all.  While it’s not phrased in the same way as in the U.S. Constitution, the Illinois Constitution is similar about not requiring criminal acts to merit impeachment:

The House of Representatives has the sole power to conduct legislative investigations to determine the existence of cause for impeachment and, by the vote of a majority of the members elected, to impeach Executive and Judicial officers. Impeachments shall be tried by the Senate. When sitting for that purpose, Senators shall be upon oath, or affirmation, to do justice according to law.

The Illinois House determines the existence of cause for impeachment.  The Illinois Senate determines whether that grave, but not necessarily criminal case is adequate.  That’s it.  Robinson may be right — Blagojevich might well walk when (or if) he’s put on trial.  But Broder is even more right, though without  really understanding his own case: Blagojevich needn’t have committed a crime to be impeachable and convictable — indeed, Blagojevich is a textbook case of what impeachment and conviction are for.

Revealingly, though, the “Broder impeachment doctrine” seems to only see the case for forced exits from office when Democrats are involved, no matter how petty the offense.  As Glenn Greenwald pointed out last June, Broder is on record both for believing Clinton should have resigned in the wake of  the Monica Lewinsky affair — and for rejecting Bush’s impeachment for the trivial matter of lying the country into the Iraq War.  With people like Broder, it’s not the magnitude of the offense that matters — it’s the magnitude of the offense he and his “bipartisan” dinner table friends take at the offense.

I join Mr. Broder, I presume, in celebrating the common sense of the Illinois legislature in impeaching and convicting Blagojevich.  I’m sure Broder would join me in hoping Blagojevich isn’t convicted in a court of law and deprived of his freedom for anything he hasn’t really done.

Well, actually, no I’m not.  But a Blagojevich “not guilty” verdict would be a marvelous teachable moment, and even a well contested court case would be.  It would point out to Broder and others like him, by the force of their own words, that they advocated impeachment and removal from office even when it wasn’t perfectly clear that a crime had been committed — and regardless of Blagojevich skating free of a criminal conviction, they’d be right for having done so.

But Broder and others might then consider extending their outrage to situations where it’s quite clear — often “only” by common sense, but in some cases even in a narrow criminal sense — that abuses of power and high crimes and misdemeanors actually have occurred.

One Response to “A teachable impeachment moment?”

  1. Nell Says:

    Good luck getting anyone unashamed to oppose Bush’s impeachment while supporting Clinton’s to understand the point via the Blago mess.

    Blago might not be guilty of pay to play in the case of the Senate seat, but he is assuredly guilty in several other state matters. Fitz was forced to go public to prevent that crime-in-progress, but probably has what he needs from the lower fish to nail Blagojevich.

    But few hands in Illinois state politics are clean, so the trial should be interesting. The unanimity of the impeachment conviction speaks to a desire to speak of the issue no more…

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