Legislative bodies quite often go about their business with lots of chatter. To those unaccustomed, watching the process unfold seems like an episode in discourteous chaos. "How in the world do they know what they're voting on?", we ask.
Today brought an exception - but then history usually does.
As the impeachment trial of Rod Blagojevich began with a group of senators escorting the chief justice into the chamber not a sound was made. It was a moment of high drama as the Senate was gaveled into a tribunal. Several times, Chief Justice Fitzgerald was compelled to ask, "Is there anyone here representing the governor?" Before Fitzgerald sat two empty chairs which had been set aside for the Governor and his lawyer who have opted out of a process they call a sham.
Nonetheless, it will go on without them and appears ever more likely that the governor will be convicted and removed from office - perhaps by the end of this week.
Senators who've been accused by some of rushing to judgement continue to say that they're intent on hearing all the evidence, asking as many questions as they feel necessary, and only when they've heard everything that's able to be presented will they vote.
The senators can ask questions only in writing and they are read aloud by the chief justice. Senator Rickey Hendon asked a number of questions today suggesting he was not happy with the way the article of impeachment has been constructed. Hendon has been a Blagojevich ally on a number of causes including health care. "Is providing health care to children an impeachable offense?" he asked. To that, lead prosecutor David Ellis said, "It's up to each senator to determine what an impeachable offense is, but this trial is about abuse of power, not health care."
Hendon did say he believes the trial process is fair, but wishes the governor had come here to testify.On Tuesday, FBI agent Daniel Cain and the playing of four short tapes containing the Governor's voice in an alleged "pay-to-play scheme". Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009 -- 6:09 p.m.
The Illinois Senate is about to embark on its historic journey this week. While each and every senator may have strong opinions on Rod Blagojevich's governing style, their charge under the Senate rules for the impeachment trial is to "...do justice under the law."
The Senators we've spoken to say they take that charge very seriously because of the historic importance of what they'll be judging, and because a rush to judgment demeans the process, and could reduce impeachment to a tool of political retribution.
Clearly, the latter is what the governor believes is happening. So, he's chosen to make his case "on-the-air" instead of before the legislative body that will determine his political fate.
The governor has been incorrect in claiming that he couldn't call witnesses or cross examine witnesses presenting the case against him. He can. It is true he cannot compel those involved in the federal criminal case to testify at the impeachment trial, nor can the prosecution, but he can produce any public comments they've made regarding the case.
But his attorneys, the Sams, Sam Adam Sr., and Sam Adam Jr. apparently feel nothing positive can come from the Senate trial, and that Rod Blagojevich is best served making his case in the forum he's most comfortable with.
In all the interviews he's done and will do, he's careful not to answer any question about the criminal complaint against him. As a former prosecutor, he knows better than to wade into areas that could come back to bite him.
The Senate had blocked out nine days for this trial, but with no one sitting at the defense table, the proceedings may be over with by the end of this week. In court last Friday, before he announced that he was removing himself as the governor's lead defense lawyer in the criminal case, Ed Genson said the Senate trial would last "two to three days."
That may be true, but I suspect that the senators are aware that a trial lasting only a couple days feeds the impression, whether true or not, that this is a rush job. So, my bet is they'll take their time, and probably wind up asking witnesses more questions than they might have had the governor decided to mount a formal defense.
When the vote comes, Supreme court Chief Justice Tom Fitzgerald will ask if the article of impeachment against Rod R. Blagojevich should be sustained. Each senator will individually rise from their seat and say yes or no. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote. So, if 40 or more senators say yes, Blagojevich is removed from office. He immediately loses all power of office.
A second vote will follow. Justice Fitzgerald will ask "Should Rod R. Blagojevich be disqualified from holding future public office in Illinois?" If there is a two-thirds vote in the affirmative, Blagojevich would be precluded from ever again running for any public office in Illinois.
Of course, there's also the matter of the criminal case, which could more definitively shape Rod Blagojevich's future.
So, this week 59 Senators are to "do justice under law." Whatever the outcome, however painful the ordeal will be, we're about to watch history being made.
- Paul Meincke