Update from Illinois

Here’s an update for those of you who do not enjoy the benefits of living in Illinois.  The last anybody heard (https://wiredsisters.wordpress.com/2009/01/05/2009-update-what-is-it-about-illinois/), our august former governor had just appointed Roland Burris to fill the US Senate seat  vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president, and everybody was deploring this move.  Well, since then, the governor has been impeached, and replaced by his lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn.  And Burris is being investigated on suspicion of having bought, or tried to buy, the senate seat our former governor is accused of having sold, or tried to sell.  There seems to be universal agreement, both in Washington and in Springfield, that Burris should not have accepted the office when Blagojevich offered it.  People seem to have suffered a wave of even stronger revulsion upon finding out that Burris had actually initiated a communication with the governor or his henchpeople indicating that he was interested in the appointment. So now everybody, in DC and Springfield alike, is saying Burris should step down, the Illinois legislature should change the law to provide for a special election rather than gubernatorial appointment when a senate seat becomes unexpectedly vacant in mid-term, and then we should  have a special election and put somebody else in Obama’s senate seat.

Well, not quite everybody. Not me, for instance.  I just don’t believe this sudden mania for political cleanliness in Springfield.  Its primary sponsor and beneficiary, Mike Madigan, the majority leader in the state senate, is no Mr. Clean himself, though he has so far avoided criminal investigation or charges.  The two other prime movers in this scenario, State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the head of the Impeachment Committee (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is the state rep. of the neighborhood in which the Wired family lives, and the recipient of their votes for decades now) and the new governor, Pat Quinn, have long been viewed as squeaky clean reformers of the sort normally derided in Illinois as Goo-goos (short for “good government.”)  Now I’m not quite sure whether their motives can be trusted, or whether they are, as some local commentators have suggested, in Madigan’s pocket.

I have no such reservations about Madigan. I know he is no reformer.  If Illinois law had given him the power to appoint Obama’s successor, I am quite sure that (a) he would do it, rather than change the law to establish a special election, and (b) the person he appointed would be either himself or some other politician friendly to him and with no particular claim to integrity.  I am also quite sure that if Burris does for some reason or other cease to be senator and his successor is the victor in a special election, Madigan will do everything he can to make sure that the people of Illinois elect either himself, his daughter (Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan), or one of his political cronies.  [BTW, I don’t mean to imply that Lisa is less than squeaky clean. So far as I can tell, she is at least as clean as Burris, and apparently doesn’t get along that well with her father.]

I wasn’t all that comfortable with Blagojevich’s impeachment, based on evidence which the public was mostly not allowed to hear, and which obviously didn’t rise to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  But Illinois law doesn’t require proof of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The law just says impeachment has to be “for cause.”  So far as anyone can tell, that could be mere Rogaine ™ abuse.
What’s happening to Burris is, I think, even worse.  Okay, more full disclosure here—back 20+ years ago, Burris endorsed me when I was running for office. My contact with Burris was kind of at third hand, and I don’t exactly remember all the links in the chain now, but I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew him and said it wouldn’t hurt to approach him, so I did, and he was distant but decent.  Also, many years later, I flunked his niece for plagiarism and she called up her Powerful Uncle to complain and he, I gather, told her to get lost. (What the niece did was copy a Roger Ebert movie review for an assignment.  Just happened that when I graded her paper, I had just a couple of hours earlier read the Ebert review in the paper and had no trouble tracking it down.)

Aside from all that, Burris has had the reputation over the years of being pretty clean and competent as Illinois politicians go.  Even the people who don’t like him admit they can’t prove he paid for the senate seat in even the most metaphorical way, and in fact believe he probably didn’t.  At best, they may be able to prove he wasn’t entirely truthful in his written responses to interrogatories.  Sorry, I do not believe in any obligation to absolute truthfulness–it certainly isn’t part of the Jewish tradition.  And for most people, even pretty honest people, absolute truthfulness is almost impossible unless one becomes totally obnoxious about it. If he lied ( or more likely, just didn’t tell the whole truth) it apparently wasn’t about any smoking gun that would result in anybody being convicted for bribery or corruption.

Most of the people who want Burris gone just object in principle to the governor–this particular governor–having appointed him.  Never mind that Illinois law says that’s how you fill a suddenly vacated senate seat–now all of a sudden they want a special election that was “too expensive” three months ago when we had (or thought we had) more money than we do now.  They think Burris should never have accepted the office, and certainly shouldn’t have intimated to the governor or his pals that he was interested in it–that he just wasn’t being classy enough.

I can sort of, just barely, believe that the Democrats in Washington really do care about the principle of the thing, or at least the appearance of principle.  I can’t believe that either the Springfield Democrats or the Republicans anywhere give a rat’s patootie about principles. They just want a shot at filling the senate seat with their own person, and above all, a chance to throw their weight around in very public ways.  And I for sure don’t believe that Burris’ replacement, however s/he gets into office, will be any cleaner than Burris or Madigan. [I did think the governor missed a chance at a classy and clever gesture by not appointing Barbara Flynn Currie, which would have simultaneously transcended any possibility of scandal AND deprived the impeachment committee of their chair in the middle of their deliberations.]

Then there’s the criminal investigation process, as it affects both Blagojevich and Burris.  Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in charge of it, has generally shown himself to be both competent and non-partisan on political corruption cases. His last big win put the last Illinois governor, Republican George Ryan, behind bars. But unlike a lot of people, I don’t automatically consider prosecutors–even competent and serious prosecutors–to be Good Guys.  I particularly don’t like prosecutors (like Ken Starr, may his name be blotted out) who, instead of starting with a crime and asking, “Who did this, and how can we convict him?”, start with somebody they just “know” is a bad guy, and ask, “I know he’s dirty–what can we convict him of?” I think that’s what Fitzgerald was doing in this case, though I don’t think he used entrapment or outrageous deals with other defendants to accomplish it, unlike a lot of prosecutors.

Admittedly, I started my legal career defending alleged draft dodgers and AWOLs, and I have a very deep-set pro-defendant bias.  My ex-boss at the Federal Defender pointed out, in a training lecture once, that a prosecutor is supposed to feel s/he has “won” if justice is done, regardless of whether that results in a conviction. Unfortunately, I know of very few prosecutors who fit that model (there was one in the Rolando Cruz case, who lost her job for refusing to prosecute him on what she felt was inadequate and concocted evidence. She turned out to be right. So far as I know, she didn’t get her job back when somebody else confessed to the murder in question.) Mostly they figure anybody who attracts the attention of the police has to be guilty of something, and the prosecutor’s job is to define the crime to fit the evidence, if any. I cut my legal teeth believing everybody is innocent of something. I think the Bill of Rights is based on the same presumption.

Last fall, along with all the major federal, state, and local offices, the people of Illinois had a chance to vote in a referendum on holding a constitutional convention to redraft our 30-year-old state constitution. I now suspect that those of us (like me) who voted against a Constitutional Convention in the referendum last fall goofed big time, and that we should probably try to get another vote on it now, to deal with both explicit standards for impeachment and the process of filling a suddenly vacated senate seat. I haven’t yet researched the possibility of a do-over of that vote, but it would sure be a good idea.

Jane Grey

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