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Commentary Illinois needs a mechanism to get rid of a damaged governor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2008 - Even if Gov. Rod Blagojevich had been comatose instead of incriminatingly verbose, it would have made no difference: Illinois lacks a blueprint for urgently removing an incapacitated governor unable or unwilling to step aside.

The state Constitution approved by voters nearly four decades ago directed the legislature to establish one. It also instructed the Supreme Court to do so if the General Assembly balked. But the lawmakers and the justices have failed us even after being reminded of their obligation five years ago.

Almost instantly after a stroke-stricken, uncommunicative Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon was rushed to a hospital in the fall of 2003, Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan assumed power under a prescribed regimen that involved top Indiana officials and the courts. This sparked a reminder to Illinois officials that they had shirked their duty.

Why not craft a rational, fair process in a crisis-free atmosphere? However, amid concerns about offending one public official or another by broaching the subject, the General Assembly leadership punted to the high court, which promptly downed the ball.

No one could have anticipated the surreal circumstances that caused Attorney General Lisa Madigan to brave an unpaved path to the Supreme Court in a worthy quest to sideline Blagojevich, pending impeachment proceedings or his voluntary abdication. But our state would have been much better prepared if our legislative and judicial leaders had not punched the snooze button after that wake-up call, and now the stony high court has compounded its disservice by spurning her bid.

After General Madigan moved to dislodge the tarnished, besieged Blagojevich, law professors dueled over the legal fine points and potential ballot opponents tried to garner political points by attacking her motives. But there should be no divide today – especially given the Supreme Court’s refusal to grant even a hearing to the lawyer for the people of Illinois – over the importance of the General Assembly fulfilling the mission it was given almost six governors ago.

Dare the potential procrastinators suggest we could never arrive at another juncture when the ability of a chief executive to govern is called into serious question? How many of them predicted a governor who entered office as his predecessor exited under investigative heat would invite the same scrutiny within a year or so?

The mission is urgent. It is also weighty. The Indiana governor’s disability was classic and starkly compelling, but could any of us have conjured the Blagojevich scenario? What about a governor seized by terrorists during a trade mission or a hazy, erratic chief executive in denial over alcoholism or addiction to pain killers while mulling whether to let an execution proceed?

The statute must be neither vague nor unduly restrictive. It must delineate which state officials should make the decision and assure a governor’s rights are protected. Yet, establishing effective checks and balances will require the best in statesmanship in a political arena too often dominated by gamesmanship.

The challenge looms large, and the General Assembly would be wise to establish and seek guidance from a blue-ribbon, bipartisan committee comprised of constitutional scholars, legislators, citizens devoted to clean and effective government and political elders, such as Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch and Republican Jim Edgar who have served in the executive and legislative branches and demonstrated solid governmental credentials. But, in the final analysis, the lawmakers themselves must complete the assignment.

They can savor the irony that Rod Blagojevich, the self-proclaimed champion of good government, inadvertently triggered this long overdue reform. Or, they can continue their neglect and encourage us to escort them from their offices – and not just temporarily.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He joined the institute as associate director in 1997 and became director after the death of Paul Simon in December 2003. In addition to serving as director, he taught classes in both the political science and journalism departments.

Prior to joining SIU, Lawrence was press secretary and senior policy adviser to Gov. Jim Edgar for nearly a decade.  He joined Edgar's staff after working as a journalist for 25 years.  During his newspaper career, he specialized in Illinois state government and politics.  Lawrence served stints as managing editor and editorial page editor of the Quad-City Times and wrote a political column that was syndicated to more than 40 newspapers in Illinois.

Lawrence capped his newspaper career as chief of the state capital bureaus for Lee Enterprises and the Chicago Sun-Times.