To do justice under the law

By John J. Hopkins | Jan 10, 2009

The 1978 comedy "Animal House" is an all time classic, a personal favorite and a fitting movie metaphor for 2009's first column.

Set in socially still transitional 1962, it tells the story of Delta House, the lowest ranked, raunchiest and most interesting fraternity on the campus of Faber College. The characters come in and out, weaving a story of debauchery and delight, all to perpetual disgust of college dean Vernon Wormer, he who plots their eventual final destruction, aided by campus brown nose Gregg Marmalard - who's ultimate fate was shown to be an aide to Richard Nixon, later raped in prison- and the other "sneaky sh--" Neidermeyer - fragged by his own troops in Vietnam.

Matters come to a head before the Inter-Disciplinary council, sitting in judgment on complaints brought by parties unknown, with charges "so perverse that decorum prevents the reading here" - so much for due process. Chapter President Robert Hoover, public defender, Baltimore, Md., attempts his defense, only to be shouted down by the aforementioned trio told in response to his inquiry about speaking: "Sit down smart guy. I'll tell you when you can speak."

As fans of the movie know full well, the kangaroo court at Faber is unsuccessful in its attempt to railroad the Delta boys, as Eric Stratton - Beverly Hills Ob-Gyn -- rises up to save the day, drawing on his background of pre law or pre med -- what's the difference? With a perfect case of diversion, the plans of Dean Wormer fail, and Delta House lives to party yet another day.

I have been thinking about "Animal House," and in particular the council scene, in connection with the ongoing saga of Governor Rod.

As readers may know, I have been no fan of Blagojevich for some time now, blasting him for his deceitful lies in connection with the medical malpractice caps legislation, a law he vowed never to sign, only to bow to the panic of the moment and abandon his earliest supporters, referring to him in August of 2005 as a "Man for No Season," one lost and without honor or dignity.

Unfortunately for the Governor, many of those who praised his courage and foresight then are among the mob seeking his well coiffed scalp now. Can you spell irony?

Rod Blagojevich is obviously the number one political story of the moment, with events changing rapidly, daily in some cases. As we complete this column, his impeachment is imminent, but not yet delivered. Although if anything is a sure bet in the unsettled world of Illinois politics, that would be it.

The talk of impeachment was not originated by the dubious prosecution by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald -- the relentless persecutor of Scooter Libby, evidence be damned -- but was indeed midwifed into being months ago by Illinois' top Democrat, Speaker Michael Madigan, his motives suspect at best.

But the Constitution of the State, the document that assures we remain governed by ideals and not just men, gives some guidance on the terms of engagement, scanty though they may be.

Article 4, section 14 of the Constitution states as follows:

"The House of Representatives has the sole power to conduct Legislative investigations to determine the existence of cause for impeachment and, by a majority vote of the members elected, to impeach Executive and Judicial officers. Impeachment shall be tried by the Senate. When sitting for that purpose, the Senators shall be upon oath, or affirmation, TO DO JUSTICE
ACCORDING TO LAW..(emphasis, obviously added.)

The article goes on to mandate a two-thirds vote for conviction -- the criminal standard word used rather than the less intrusive "removal," but is silent on any other points of reference.

The issue then clearly becomes what law is to be on oath faithfully followed in order to achieve the illusive goal of Justice?

The law of the Jungle? The law of Madigan? Murphy's law? Or more likely, the law of the land, the one formed at the anvil of bitter experience, tempered by mercy and recognizing the inherent overwhelming power of the Government.

The goal is to make as much as humanly possible a level playing field, avoiding at all costs even the appearance of a less than fair proceeding, avoiding the mistakes created by an abundance of desire to punish an already determined guilty law breaker in favor of that nasty and cumbersome presumption of innocence until PROVEN guilty.

The Illinois House of Representatives on the matter of the Governor's impeachment is not even laughingly impartial. Controlled by the Speaker, they would vote a Bill of Impeachment for bad breath if told to.

The check on such potential legislative excesses lies then in the Senate, the more deliberative of the two bodies, compelled by law and conscience to bring a moment of reason to the mob howling for blood in the Land of Lincoln.

There is no precedent to guide, as no Governor has ever formerly been impeached. The criterion, the procedure, the rules of evidence, and any presumptions accorded the accused must then cut from whole cloth without a pattern. But therein lies the rub, as it is not enough to simply and somewhat flippantly say that this is "not a criminal proceeding," and ergo the well defined concepts of due process only apply to that degree to which the Senate in its infinite wisdom deems to allow.

The Constitution, the beacon of light in this land of darkness, commands no "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" as a basis for action, leaving it instead to the House to apply whatever it so chooses. But the word "conviction" is used, not "removal."

Implicit in such a choice is the adoption of criminal or at the very least quasi-criminal rules of procedures, with all requisite presumptions for the accused, and the full measure of evidentiary protections, including the right to both confront your accusers - eliminating in the process reliance on blatant forms of impermissible hearsay, as well as the incumbersome right to decline to be a witness against yourself.

Such is given unto the least and most reprehensible. Should it not be extended to the Chief Executive of our State, no matter how foul and unworthy a human being he may be. The issue transcends the man.

Governor Rod as a man is not easy to defend. But the principles of Law -- the basis for any true Justice -- are always in vogue.

The Senate cannot be blinded by personal rancor toward the man, but rise up and live up the charge of "doing Justice under the Law."

The impeachment case will be studied for years, from middle schools in Bethalto, to law schools in Carbondale. The eyes of history are most literally upon Illinois' upper chamber.

If a full measure of fairness is not afforded Blagojevich, the process and any verdict rendered is then made illegitimate, the accusers mocked and the accused made martyr.

The Governor will be judged by a jury of 59 fellow politicians, the vast majority of which have already expressed opinions on the guilt of the accused, hardly a fair deal. That cannot be changed. He is therefore entitled to at the very least complete and undiluted due process. The judgement of history commands no less.

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