Yesterday, Gov. Blagojevich made a brief public statement denying charges of wrong-doing. He and his lawyers have put forward a number of predictable defenses – that there has been a rush to judgement, that Blagojevich should be considered innocent until proven guilty, that he must receive a judicious hearing and the full due process of the law – without actually enunciating a specific defense to any of the corruption charges. The State of Illinois can now only assume that he has no intention of resigning. He seems determined instead to run out the clock on his tenure, delaying judgment through procedural tactics at taxpayer expense while clinging to his office’s power and salary for as long as possible. The state legislature should thus quickly proceed with impeachment hearings .
The principle of innocence until proven guilt is an important one for criminal law. Because rights are thought to be inherent to individuals and not exist for the benefit of others, they must be protected. By setting a relatively high bar for procedural and evidentiary standards, we try to ensure that rights are limited only in the actual occurrence of criminal acts.
To state the obvious, possession of a public office is not a fundamental right of the office-holder. It is held at the pleasure of the people, for the benefit of the people. Whatever standards of evidence exist for the coming impeachment hearing will thus be geared to maximize the people’s benefit, not Blaglojevich’s. Blagojevich should be given a chance to briefly respond to the charges made against him, and if his explanation is neither credible nor exculpatory, he should be removed from office. The legislature is in no way bound to wait for slow criminal proceedings to establish “proof” of his guilt.
In the unlikely event that the evidence against Blagojevich proves to be somehow mistaken or manufactured, he will have an opportunity to return to office through the normal electoral channels. In the meantime, every major act that passes through his office – potentially including the appointment of a replacement senator to fill Pres. Elect Obama’s vacancy – will be tainted with an overwhelming aura of illegitimacy.