Friday, January 2, 2009

So When Exactly Does "Change" Arrive? Senate Battle Over Burris and Blagojevich Offers "More of the Same"!

For over a year now, virtually every candidate for elected office has appropriated Obama's highly successful "change" mantra. But if you have taken just a few moments out your holiday festivities to read the latest political developments, Washington, DC will remain the same absent some catastrophic event.

What Happened to the Economy, Health Care, the Wars, and Civil Rights?
Despite all of the urgent problems the country needs to address, Senate Democrats apparently believe that their first major constitutional, political and media battle in 2009 should center around a two-year, filler Senate position. And as I write this essay, Republicans have just threatened to play the same game and block comedian Al Franken from representing Minnesota in the Senate -- despite his apparent 39-point victory over GOP incumbent Norm Coleman.

With such frivolity unfolding, our trustworthy media will undoubtedly flock like lemmings to Capitol Hill where they will remain planted and reporting every single development or rumored development in the messy drama. [Editor's Note: Despite the new Franken-Coleman developments, for the sake of space and my own sanity and free time, this essay focuses exclusively on the Blagojevich-Burris-Reid affair.]

Blagojevich Performing His Obligations As Governor
The 17th Amendment authorizes states to conduct Senate elections (Article I addresses the House) and to fill vacancies when they arise. In the event of a vacancy, the Constitution gives states the option of holding a special election or allowing a governor to choose the replacement. Illinois law allows the governor to fill Senate vacancies, and the current governor has done so, by naming Roland Burris to occupy Obama's vacated seat.

Not so fast, say Senate Democrats. Democrats refuse to allow Burris to occupy the seat because a federal prosecutor has filed a criminal complaint against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, accusing him, in part, of conspiring to profit from public office by selling the vacated seat.

Many constitutional law scholars (myself included) believe that the weight of historical evidence, constitutional text, and Court doctrine deny the Senate the authority to veto Blagojevich at will. Nevertheless, Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, says that the criminal charges place a "taint" over the selection process that renders any appointment by Blagojevich illegitimate, which in turn empowers the Senate to disregard Burris or any other candidate the governor had selected. I'm not buying this argument -- at all.

Legally, Governor Blagojevich's Position Remains Unaltered
Despite the filing of criminal charges against Blagojevich, his role as governor has not changed. Blagojevich has not been convicted or even indicted, and even if he had been, this alone would not effectuate his removal from office.

Also, the Illinois legislature declined to deprive Blagojevich of the power to fill the vacancy -- a move that, if successful, would have prevented the current conflict. Instead, the Attorney General asked the Illinois Supreme Court to declare Blagojevich incompetent to serve -- in other words, to conduct an undemocratic judicial impeachment of the governor. The court, however, refused to do so. Meanwhile, impeachment proceedings have progressed at a snail's pace.

To make matters worse, the prosecutor has announced that he needs an additional three months to prepare a case against the governor, but he has requested that the impeachment panel refrain from taking testimony from alleged candidates (or their agents) with whom Blagojevich allegedly tried to make a deal. Due process, however, requires that material witnesses participate in fact-finding proceedings so that the accused can confront them and factfinders can develop a reliable record.

If the Illinois impeachment panel progresses without testimony from material witnesses, then its conception of due process will rival that of the outgoing Bush administration. Nonetheless, the panel has now promised to deliver a "quickie" impeachment with results by as early as next week.

The impeachment panel's promise reduces to simple equation: Withholding necessary witnesses PLUS steamrolling the proceedings EQUALS a denial of procedural fairness. With liberals promising to conduct rapid, outcome-already-determined impeachment proceedings without testimony from material witnesses change has not arrived, certainly not in Illinois -- the cradle of change.

Reid's "Taint" Argument Is Tainted
Reid and his supporters argue that the Senate must exclude any candidate Blagojevich selects because the criminal complaint taints the selection process. But the "taint" argument does not hold up to scrutiny. First, "taint" is such a broad and amorphous concept that it could support a Senate veto under an infinite number of scenarios, which would effectively obliterate the 17th Amendment's framework, which authorizes states to fill Senate vacancies.

That taint argument also assumes wrongdoing by Blagojevich simply because a prosecutor accused him of committing a crime. Personally, we might "believe" that Blagojevich is guilty of a crime, but a criminal complaint is simply a set of allegations -- not facts.

The constitution that I teach mandates that prosecutors prove allegations against defendants -- not that defendants prove their innocence. In other words, our constitutional culture assumes the innocence of the accused. Court doctrine treats the presumption of innocence as an essential element of a system of justice and ordered liberty.

Senate Democrats, however, have discarded the presumption of innocence and are using the criminal complaint to disempower not only Blagojevich, but any candidate he selects for the position. But unless Burris bought the seat, the taint argument simply cannot apply.

Reid nonetheless insists that the Senate must reject any person that Blagojevich selects. This blanket assertion -- made without any factfinding whatsoever -- undermines Reid's credibility and worsens the due process deprivation by treating with suspicion every potential appointee, regardless of whether a legitimate basis for linking that person to impropriety exists. Because Reid's argument undermines basic constitutional principles that require procedural fairness, his threat to exclude Burris in order to prevent taint is itself tainted.

Business As Usual in Washington, DC
For those of you who feared that change would devastate Washington, be not afraid. If you still dream of a different tomorrow, you should probably temper your hope.

Most of the nation's political leaders promised "change" in 2009. The Burris (and now Franken-Coleman) controversy, however, indicates that Congress will cling (at least in the near future) to the familiar past and will engage in public grandstanding over relatively insignificant matters when they could instead use that energy to tackle the world's most pressing problems. If you remain unpersuaded, here are some facts to consider [Editor's Note: Beware of Sarcasm]:
* While Bush hunted fruitlessly for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Congress subpoenaed athletes and held days of hearings in order to rid professional sports of terroristic steroid use.

* In 2005, after the ultimately destructive housing bubble had already begun, Congress convened an emergency session on national security to reverse a decade of exhaustive Florida litigation that allowed Terry Schiavo to end her life with dignity.

* And in the 1990s, while millions of Americans suffered from a lack of health care, members of Congress made sure that no future president would ever consensually stain a blue dress "not his wife's" (thanks for the line, Cokie Roberts) without suffering severe consequences.
Today, foreclosures, unemployment and bankruptcies have reached record levels. The nation's armed forces continue to battle two costly and deadly wars (costly, deadly, and war -- redundant). Poor people lack essential resources such as health care, jobs, food, shelter and education. Violent crimes have surged as jobs vanish. Children remain "left behind." And deprivations of civil and human rights continue but often go unnoticed and unpunished.

Although these critical issues require immediate attention, our nation's "leaders" have decided to spend precious intellectual and political resources in order to defeat a two-year, probably one-"term," legally appointed replacement Senator. Weighing the costs and benefits, Senator Reid, the Senate's flawed priorities and procedural unfairness will probably harm society much more than living with Blagojevich's alleged taint.

PS: After analyzing the constitutional and political issues at stake in this situation (and writing about them on the blog), I began to wonder why this was even happening. This essay is the product of those thoughts.

Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:

Some Media Outlets Begin "Palinizing" Roland Burris

Defiant Blagojevich Names Obama's Successor: Decision Raises Political and Constitutional Questions

Like It or Not, Democracy Prevails: Illinois Supreme Court Refuses to Declare Blagojevich Unfit to Serve

Blago Impeachment: What Would Lincoln Do?


Samuel in Maryland said...

Right on! Don't worry that you analyzed the issue earlier. You are not in the Senate - and as you said, you were simply thinking through the issues. Now, the GOP has joined the fray, and it's all getting out of control. This is crazy.

Lance Hamilton said...

Darren Hutchinson said: "Congress subpoenaed athletes and held days of hearings in order to rid professional sports of terroristic steroid use."

Lance Hamilton says: I never understood, Professor, why this was even an issue for Congress. Is it some kind of commerce clause argument? Even if Congress had the authority to hold the hearings, they were a major waste of time and money. You are right in saying that things look the same right now. I am going to remain hopeful though, but I will take your advice and tone it down a little.

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