Will Roland W. Burris be sworn is as a Senator for the State of Illinois? He should be. The governor of his state has appointed him to fill the seat vacated by president-elect Barack Obama. The law gives to the governor the right to make this appointment.
Of course, Mr. Burris, a career Illinois politician of unblemished reputation, was appointed by none other thant Governor Rod Blagojevich, a man just about every righteous American seems these days to hate. Why the man tried to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder, didn't he?
Those are the allegations of the United States Attorney's Office, which has presented the evidence against the governor to a secret grand jury and secured his indictment. What's more, the same U.S. Attorney's Office has taken its case against Blagojevich to the press. Secret recordings have been made public, and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is egging on efforts of Illinois lawmakers to impeach the governor. It is a powerful lynch mob.
I do not know whether the governor did anything wrong. I do know that he is presumed innocent of the charges against him. He has yet to confront his accusers and tell his side of the story. Perhaps his defense will be an indictment of the status quo: "Money talks in electoral politics; what I did differs in degree but not in kind from what is done in each and every race for elective office." Or perhaps he will claim entrapment. Whatever the defense, he has a right to make it before he is strung up from a lamp post and left to swing in the wind.
Senate Democrats and President Obama have already denounced the appointment of Burris, yet no one can speak a foul word of him other than he was appointed by Blagojevich. Burris is qualified by age, citizenship and residency for the position. Attempts to bar him from sitting should fail as a matter of law, a lesson we already learned when Congress tried to bar Adam Clayton Powell from sitting in the 1960s.
What terrifies about the reaction to this appointment is the ease with which we abandon the rule of law for something akin to mob passion. Sure, Blagojevich governs under a cloud. His effectiveness as governor is compromised. He cannot lead. Whether these are grounds for impeachment is a political question best left to the Illinois legislature. A more gracious man might have stepped aside while he addressed the allegations. But grace is not required.
The German sociologist Max Weber taught a century ago that there are different ways in which societies transform raw power into legitimate authority. Rational political systems have transparent rules and norms for doing so. By contrast, charismatic systems rely upon the passion inspired by powerful leaders, and, perhaps, events. The problem with charisma is that is can lead just about anywhere. Hence, in a political system such as ours, we erect checks and balances to channel passions; we enact rights to place limits on what can be done to even those accused of the worst crimes imaginable. In the Blogojevich case, we appear willing to ignore the requirements of law merely to serve a furious sense of self-righteousness.
The question no one seems to be asking just now is whether Blagojevich will ever be able to get a fair trial. Hasn't the government now so fouled the pool of potential jurors with its unnecessary and unjustifiable pre-trial publicity that a fair trial is impossible? Will these charges be dismissed?
Such a result is unthinkable in the heat of the moment. We all hate the corrupt pol who has somehow managed to throw manure onto Obama's rose-petal covered procession to the White House. But I would be far more comforted by a dismissal of the charges as a sanction against abuse of prosecutorial authority than I would be by summary execution of Blagojevich.
Blogojevich is presumed innocent. If he cannot govern, he should be impeached. But until there is either a finding of guilt or a vote to remove him from office he is, like or not, governor of Illinois. As a matter of law, he has the right to appoint Obama's replacement.