‘A Just Cause’: Examining the Blagojevich Case 7 Years Later

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Seven years ago, the Illinois Senate made its most historic vote, and it was unanimous: 59-0 to impeach then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Read Blagojevich’s final argument during his impeachment trial before the Senate. 

A new book provides a detailed firsthand account of the eight weeks leading up to the vote. It's called, “A Just Cause: The Impeachment and Removal of Governor Rod Blagojevich.” 

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We are joined by not only the author but also two Senate leaders who lived through the crisis and vote on Jan. 29, 2009: Senate President John Cullerton; Senate minority leader Christine Rodogno; and Bernie Sieracki, author of "A Just Cause" and professor of public adminstration at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"My book is not about Rod Blagojevich," said Sieracki. "He certainly plays a part in my book–a very large part. But my book is about the process of impeachment and the trail, and the legislature and the staff, and what they did those seven weeks and three days, seven years ago. It's their story and how they took a very nebulous phrase in the Constitution–"for cause"; you will impeach "for cause"–and removed the governor. Something they had to do."

"The governor lived a block and a half from me," Cullerton said. "He was the first Democrat after 28 years of Republicans, and yet, while he was the governor, I barely talked to him. But I wasn't the president of the Senate. Christine and I got elected the same day that we started the impeachment trial. So there was a lot going on."

"It was very important that we not politicize this in a way that would make the people of Illinois feel that it wasn't a real and fair process," said Radogno.

Watch the video to hear our full discussion about "A Just Cause" and also the state's current budget mess.

Below, a timeline of the Rod Blagojevich case, including the eight weeks highlighted in "A Just Cause."

Below, read an excerpt of "A Just Cause: The Impeachment and Removal of Governor Rod Blagojevich"


On Tuesday, December 9, 2008, a gray dawn arrived over Illinois, bringing an intermittent rain and a chill in the air. It was one of those damp, early winter days when the struggle between fall and winter seems finally resolved, and people go on with a sense of acceptance. There was nothing special about the dawning of this day, but that would rapidly change. In the early morning hours an FBI arrest team arrived at the Chicago home of Governor Rod Blagojevich and took him quickly into custody. The arrest was conducted like a raid. The governor was not given advance warning or the courtesy of being able to turn himself in; rather, he was snatched in the night like a common criminal. Wearing a jogging suit and handcuffs, the stunned governor was photographed being led away by federal agents. Word of the governor’s arrest quickly spread throughout the state and began a political crisis that would grip Illinois for the next seven weeks and three days.

With helicopters hovering overhead, broadcasting events on live television, news crews followed the caravan of police and federal vehicles transporting the governor through the streets of Chicago, first to a federal lockup facility on the city’s near west side and then downtown to federal court. People were mesmerized by the chaotic scene playing out before them. Veteran reporters who rushed to cover the story could not believe what was happening.

The six years of the Blagojevich administration resulted in a steady stream of indictments and convictions of those close to the governor, exposed mismanagement and possible criminal activity within his administration, and fueled rumors of corruption and abuse by the governor. The Blagojevich administration was in constant conflict with the legislature, which frustrated the legislators and greatly dissatisfied the public. The governor’s poor relationship with the legislators began when he first took office in 2003, the first Democrat to take the oath of office of Illinois governor since Dan Walker in 1973. In 2003 the Democrats had won the majority in both the state house and senate, and many anticipated being able to control the policy agenda. Instead, it marked the beginning of a political civil war.

The Blagojevich administration descended on Springfield with the promise of change from his predecessor, George Ryan. Ryan, who was under indictment, was tried in 2005 and found guilty of racketeering, conspiracy, and fraud. He was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. Under the Blagojevich administration, governance certainly did change, but not the way most anticipated. Blagojevich quickly sought to consolidate his power by controlling the hiring of staff and consultants and engineering decisions regarding state contracts in agencies under the executive branch. He consolidated facilities management, internal auditing, legal functions, and leasing decisions under the Department of Central Management Services (CMS), where his office could oversee who would be chosen to receive leases for state facilities and contracts.

Blagojevich delegated the power to appoint people to state jobs and positions on state boards to people outside of state government—his political confidants and fund-raisers. There are few secrets in Springfield, and the obtrusive methods and audacity of the governor’s intimates in raising campaign cash and kickbacks for themselves did not go unnoticed. Audits conducted by the state auditor general, released in 2005 and 2006, uncovered gross incompetence and possible pay-to-play activity. In late 2003, the first year of the Blagojevich administration, the FBI and the US attorney began investigating those around the new governor.2 The office of governor is an integral part of state government, and for practitioners of the political process, lobbyists, those with special interests, legislators, and legislative staff, government is a business. Those who engaged in the political machinations of Illinois government took note, but like the citizens of Pompeii, they chose to go on with their daily affairs, ignoring the ominous rumblings of Vesuvius.

In retrospect, the six years of the Blagojevich administration defined a time of moral disengagement. Initially, some legislators naïvely facilitated Blagojevich’s administrative antics, but by 2007, the first year into his second term, the governor’s relationships with most members of the legislature had deteriorated significantly. His remarks concerning the legislators became increasingly hostile, referring to the legislators as “drunken sailors” and taunting the house Speaker, Michael Madigan.

By the end of the 2007 session, the governor had failed to reach an agreement with the legislature concerning the state’s budget. That summer marked the nadir of the relationship between the governor and the legislature. The Illinois Constitution authorizes the governor to call special sessions without pre-specified conditions by issuing a proclamation and stating the purpose of the session.3 Throughout July and August 2007, Blagojevich issued proclamation after proclamation, repeatedly calling the legislature back into special sessions. Negotiations on budget matters between legislative leaders and the governor stalled, and consequently there were no policy proposals to debate and act on. The legislators could do nothing but travel to Springfield, commence the special session, and then adjourn. As soon as the legislature adjourned, the governor called another special session. It became a schoolyard game of one-upmanship, and the legislators were furious. They were away from their families, wasting their time, forced to cancel district events or vacation plans, and it was costing taxpayers thousands of dollars a day to have them in Springfield. Blagojevich enjoyed it. He stayed at his Chicago home, went jogging or to his campaign office, and rarely ventured to Springfield. During that frustrating summer, serious discussions took place among the legislators as they considered their options to solve the never-ending problems created by the governor. “We had to do something about this,” State Representative John Fritchey recalled.

Impeachment and a trial to remove Blagojevich were made problematic by the nebulous criteria for impeachment and removal contained in the 1970 Illinois Constitution: “the existence of cause for impeachment.” Definite criteria for impeachment and removal had not been a major concern of the delegates who drafted the Constitution. The Illinois legislature had not employed the provision for 137 years, and there had been little discussion. John Marshall Law School professors Ron Smith, a delegate to the 1970 Constitutional Convention, and Ann Lousin, who served as a staff lawyer to the convention, both recalled that impeachment was not addressed as a major subject.6 It also had not been an important topic for the delegates to the 1869–70 convention or the 1862 convention (which was never ratified) or during the deliberations of the 1847 convention.

It is important to put Illinois’ absence of an extended debate concerning impeachment into a historical context. The subject of impeachment was a central concern to the federal delegates who met in Philadelphia in 1787. They were men acting in their own time, who sought to reject England’s heritage of monarchy and to establish a republican system of government that ensured a separation of powers as well as a balance of powers. They were well aware of potential abuses by the executive, but they also were very concerned with the actions of factions and the passions of majorities.

The development of Illinois’ constitutions did not follow the national narrative. The state did not have the kind of agonizing debates over impeachment and removal of the chief executive that took place during the drafting of the federal constitution. Illinois’ constitutions were developed under different circumstances. The authors of its first constitution in 1818 were primarily concerned with Illinois becoming a state and drafting a constitution that would be approved by Congress. They spent little time struggling with republican ideals. Illinois became a Jacksonian state and was populated by men on the make. The communication revolution had begun, and the three subsequent constitutions drafted in the nineteenth century were undertaken in response to evolving economic, political, and technological events.9 The subject of impeachment became less and less a concern, and in 1970 impeachment and removal became a prerogative of the legislature.

Despite the absence of definitions or standards, impeachment is a path that has been seldom traveled in Illinois; the legislature has shown great restraint in calling for impeachment. Before Blagojevich, the Illinois house held impeachment investigations only twice: in 1833, when Supreme Court justice Theophilus Smith was accused of selling public offices and other misconducts, and in 1997, when another Supreme Court justice, James D. Heiple, was investigated by the house for misconduct associated with traffic stops and disregarding police instructions on multiple occasions. Smith was impeached by the house and tried by the senate. His defense team included future Illinois governor Thomas Ford, future US senator and Supreme Court justice Sidney Breese, and future US senator Richard Young. The trial was held at downstate Vandalia in January, and several senate members failed to attend the trial. The majority of those present voted to convict on most of the charges, but they failed to reach the constitutional majority of two-thirds. Smith stayed on the bench until 1842.10 Heiple was not impeached and left office when his term expired, having agreed not to seek reelection.

The arrest of Rod Blagojevich in 2008 and the criminal allegations that followed ignited a series of events that resulted in the most consequential action the state legislature has ever taken. For the first time in Illinois history, the legislature, exercising its constitutional authority, impeached, tried, and removed a governor from office. The story of the impeachment and removal of Rod Blagojevich is a story of the workings of the legislative process, but it is also the story of the people involved, the legislators and legislative staff and their decisions and experiences. Not one of these people awoke on the morning of December 9 with any idea that their actions in the coming weeks would earn a place of significance in Illinois history. They are now a part of that history.

Continue reading: Chapter one


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