SPRINGFIELD — The bright hopes for a new political beginning that often accompany the inauguration of an Illinois legislature will be overshadowed by awkwardness Wednesday when Gov. Rod Blagojevich oversees the swearing-in of a Senate that will sit in judgment at his pending impeachment trial.
"I think it's going to be eerie," Sen. Susan Garrett (D- Lake Forest) said Tuesday. "It's like being a part of a family where you're in a position to try to convict a family member—because we worked with him. Whether we liked him or didn't like him, we've been with him for six years."
On Wednesday, Blagojevich is scheduled to make his first visit to the state Capitol since his Dec. 9 arrest on federal corruption charges for allegedly trying to trade on his office for personal and political profit, including naming a U.S. senator. His arrest spurred the House to move forward with his impeachment. Conviction in a Senate trial could mean Blagojevich's removal from office.
There are several issues big and small surrounding Blagojevich's participation in the inauguration of the Illinois Senate. The Senate president will swear in the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Thomas Fitzgerald, as presiding officer over the trial. The senators will be sworn in as jurors under oath by the Senate secretary.
At the same time, the Senate is dispensing with its honor of designating senators to serve as a committee to escort the governor out of the ornate legislative chambers. Senate leaders plan to direct the chamber's sergeant-at-arms to deliver to Blagojevich a summons directing him and his lawyers to respond to the article of impeachment filed by the House.
"It's probably more awkward for him than it is for us. I'm not sure he understands that," said Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), the incoming Senate minority leader. "I just don't sense that he grasps the seriousness of the situation he's facing."
Blagojevich says he is innocent of the criminal charges. He called the House impeachment politically motivated, and said he looks forward to a fair hearing at the Senate trial.
A new Illinois House also will be sworn in Wednesday and one of the chamber's first acts will be to revote the 13-point article of impeachment it voted 114-1 on Friday, with one member voting present. The new vote is a technicality caused by the inauguration of the General Assembly, which reflects changes in members as a result of the Nov. 4 general election. The Senate rules for conducting the impeachment trial, scheduled to begin in earnest Jan. 26, will sharply limit Blagojevich's ability to try to sway senators.
"It would be the same as tampering with a jury," said Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) of any conversations Blagojevich has with senators.
Prosecuting the trial on behalf of the House will be David Ellis, the legal counsel for Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and the principal author of the report issued by an investigative panel that recommended Blagojevich's impeachment.
Ellis, 41, a Chicago attorney since 1993 who moved to Springfield and joined Madigan's staff in November 2003, has never been a prosecutor or practiced criminal defense law. Though he said the Senate deliberations would have elements of a trial, it will not be conducted as a criminal trial.
Ellis has written five novels, including one involving a character named Tony Rezko, though it bore no relation to Blagojevich's top fundraiser and adviser Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who was convicted on federal corruption charges. Ellis said there was "no significance" to the use of the name.