High court rejects attempt to remove governor

December 17, 2008 5:42:58 PM PST
The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday denied an effort to remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich, rejecting what could have been the quickest way to force the Democrat from office. Blagovich's lawyer, meanwhile, said the governor would not appoint someone to fill Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat, potentially answering one of the key questions surrounding the scandal.

"Harry Reid said that they're not going to accept anybody he picks," said attorney Ed Genson, referring to the Senate majority leader. "Why would he do that?"

The state court's ruling came as Genson was challenging the strength of the corruption case against Blagojevich before a panel of lawmakers considering whether to recommend impeachment.

Genson said the wiretaps that ensnared his client amounted to all talk and no action.

"It's just people jabbering," Genson told the House panel.

Genson attacked the impeachment proceedings on multiple fronts Wednesday, assailing the wiretaps, questioning the committee's impartiality and complaining that the panel had not given the governor enough time to mount a defense.

Lawmakers rejected all of Genson's complaints, saying the committee has broad power to review anything related to the governor's performance. They said Genson's courtroom-style objections won't change the panel's approach.

"He's trying to throw up enough dust ... to make people think the governor is guilty of nothing - pure as the new driven snow," committee chairwoman Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said afterward.

Blagojevich has been under siege since his arrest last week on charges that he tried to auction off Barack Obama's Senate seat.

But he got some good news when the state's highest court refused to hear the attorney general's legal challenge to his fitness to serve.

The state Supreme Court rejected without comment a challenge filed by state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, herself a top candidate for governor in 2010. It was unclear whether the court turned down the case on its merits or on procedural grounds.

The attorney general had asked the court to remove Blagojevich, arguing that his legal and political troubles prevented him from performing his duties. Madigan said the governor's problems amount to a disability, so Blagojevich should have been stripped of his authority temporarily just as if he were physically incapacitated.

Madigan said she was disappointed by the ruling, saying Blagojevich's refusal to resign has put the state in an "unsustainable situation."

The court's decision renewed calls from Republicans for a special election to choose Obama's successor in the Senate.

But state Senate Democrats, after initially supporting such an election, this week canceled a vote on the matter and adjourned, leaving that power with Blagojevich.

When told about Genson's comment Wednesday, Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said he hadn't heard from the governor "one way or another."

"I don't know if he's closed the door on himself appointing a senator," Guerrero said.

Blagojevich had already started the day feeling upbeat, telling reporters before a morning run that he had confidence in Genson and that he was eager to defend himself.

"I can't wait to begin to tell my side of the story and to address you guys and, most importantly, the people of Illinois.

That's who I'm dying to talk to."

Blagojevich denies any wrongdoing and is defying an avalanche of demands for his resignation.

Federal wiretaps recorded Blagojevich talking about selling or trading Obama's Senate seat, but Genson told the House committee that the words do not amount to illegal actions.

He called the wiretaps "two months of somebody who obviously likes to talk a lot, but two months of nothing getting done."

"There's no evidence that anyone ever asked anybody for anything with regard to that (U.S. Senate) seat," Genson added.

Genson said it would be "frankly illegal" for the committee to base an impeachment recommendation on the criminal complaint against Blagojevich. The complaint doesn't provide full conversations and context, he said, and it can't be cross-examined like a witness.

Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, challenged Genson to have Blagojevich testify.

"If we want the facts, we should have your client here. If you want to get to the facts, let's bring him here, let's ask the questions," Franks said.

The Illinois House has appointed a 21-member committee to review the possibility of impeachment. It will look at the criminal charges, along with whether the governor has abused his power by defying lawmakers and spending money with authorization.

The committee, divided 12-9 between Democrats and Republicans, will recommend whether the full House should move to impeach Blagojevich. If that happened, the state Senate would then decide whether the governor is guilty.

Genson told the impeachment panel that some of its members have made statements suggesting they had already made up their minds. He also said neither the law nor the constitution spell out the standard for impeachment or what evidence should be considered.

Genson argued that three lawmakers - Franks and Republicans Bill Black of Danville and Jil Tracy of Mount Sterling - should be removed because their opening statements indicate they've made up their minds.

"They made comments which show Rod Blagojevich can't get a fair and impartial hearing of this committee," said Genson, who later called the atmosphere surrounding the governor's case a "witch hunt."

Currie said that the committee members would not be removed. She also defended the members' opening statements for showing "a spirit of due process and fair play."

Genson also is asking the Illinois House to appoint and pay for Blagojevich's attorneys in the impeachment matter. That normally would be Madigan's job, he said, but she cannot do it because of her challenge to the state Supreme Court.

Madigan's office said it would respond soon to Genson's request.