Having been removed from office on a unanimous vote of the Illinois State Senate, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich shows an unsurprising failure to understand the principal virtue of the constitutional impeachment process. Ben Franklin explained this virtue to his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
Impeachment, Franklin said with customary drollery, is “favorable to the executive.” Without it, the only recourse for the citizenry is to assassinate
their leader, which deprives him “not only of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character.”
These were not small guarantees to the accused in an impeachment case. Under the English model of impeachment, which the Framers adapted to their new Republic, the accused faced imprisonment or even beheading.
The Illinois governor should be grateful for the preservation of his life, having thrown away any opportunity to defend himself during the impeachment trial in Springfield. Rather than face cross-examination by a well-prepared prosecutor, Blagojevich preferred to spar with Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar on The View.
Judge John Pickering of New Hampshire did not attend his 1804 trial before the U.S. Senate, where he was reported to be an alcoholic and mentally unstable. In 1862, Judge West Humphreys of Tennessee did not defend himself against charges that he had taken a judgeship with the Confederacy. Actually, he was working as a judge for the Confederacy at the time, which largely proved the prosecution case.
The accusations against Blagojevich began with the headline-grabbing charge that he tried to auction off the Senate seat formerly held by President Obama, seeking the best combination of campaign funding and/or new job opportunity that the position would command. But they included much more:
· That the governor demanded the firing of a newspaper’s editorial writer before state aid would be extended to the newspaper;
· That he demanded campaign contributions in return for signing legislation benefitting the horse-racing industry, awarding state construction contracts, and releasing state medical reimbursements.
· That he insisted on the expansion of a state health care program for which there was not funding.
· That he engaged in “endemic hiring fraud,” preferring politically-connected candidates to qualified ones.
When he was first arrested, Blagojevich hired experienced lawyers who sprang to attack those accusing the governor. In the last two weeks, those lawyers all resigned from the case – a high-profile case with meaty constitutional issues and plenty of time in front of the cameras.
Why would a lawyer do that?
“I don’t require that a client do what I say,” one offered by way of explanation, “but I do require that he listen.”
Clients who don’t listen are certainly difficult, but not all that uncommon. A deeper problem arises when the client insists on saying things that the lawyer cannot defend in a trial.
So the Illinois governor faced his impeachment trial on the same terms as the crazy, alcoholic judge and the traitor – absent and unrepresented. Having thrown away the chance to defend his reputation, he can at least be grateful that, as Ben Franklin promised, his life was spared.