Hours after impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich convened a new Illinois Senate and urged lawmakers to "find the truth," senators took the first steps Wednesday toward a trial to determine whether the governor is ousted from office for corruption and abuse of power.
The Democratic governor presided over the first meeting of a Senate whose most urgent task is putting him on trial. He was greeted by silence as he entered the Senate chamber through a back entrance, took the podium without introduction and banged a gavel to call the session to order. He mostly stuck to the formalities of overseeing the ceremony during the hour or so he presided over the chamber.
But as he handed the proceedings over to incoming Senate President John Cullerton, a fellow Democrat from Chicago, Blagojevich said he hoped senators would "find the truth and sort things out, to put the business of the people first."
He also called on state senators to act "with malice toward none, with charity for all," referring to Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the Civil War, when he implored his countrymen to "bind up the nation's wounds" and work toward peace.
Left through a back door
He left through a back door to the Senate chamber. The Senate did not provide a group of escorts that would walk a governor out the front door to allow plenty of time for handshakes and backslaps.
Soon after, the Senate took the first formal steps toward a trial, approving rules for the proceedings and swearing in members as jurors. Blagojevich spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said the governor's legal team on Wednesday accepted a summons from the Senate for the impeachment trial.
Senators fell silent and took their seats as two staffers wheeled in a dolly stacked with nine boxes of evidence and files from the House impeachment committee. House-appointed prosecutor David Ellis then read details of the governor's impeachment into the record.
Republican Sen. Dan Rutherford said the silence and the desks adorned with flowers — left over from earlier festivities — were a bit eerie.
"Unless it's the resolution to memorialize the death of a colleague, I haven't heard it this quiet in the chambers," Rutherford said.
The Illinois House impeached Blagojevich last week on a 114-1 vote, more than a month after his Dec. 9 arrest on federal corruption charges. New House members also sworn in Wednesday reaffirmed the vote, with the governor's sister-in-law as the only dissenting vote.
Rep. Deborah Mell, whose sister is married to Blagojevich, is a freshman Democratic representative from Chicago.
In a statement issued later, Mell said she "could not in good conscience vote for his impeachment."
"I have known the governor for more than 20 years and the charges in the impeachment were difficult to reconcile with the man and brother-in-law I know," Mell said.
"Our Inauguration Day is traditionally a day exclusively for celebration, but the oath we've just taken requires that we immediately take up the issue of the governor's lack of fidelity to the state constitution and its laws," Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie said before Wednesday's vote.
Second vote needed
Illinois House Speaker spokesman Steve Brown said the second impeachment vote was needed because the previous chamber's vote had expired, and legislators wanted to be sure the move stands for the upcoming Senate trial.
Secretary of State Jesse White, a fellow Democrat who had refused to certify Blagojevich's appointment of Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate, presided over the swearing-in of the new Illinois House. White had refused to sign Burris' certification papers because of the criminal allegations against Blagojevich.
At the Illinois House ceremony Wednesday, Republican state Rep. William Black praised White for standing firm, saying: "In the last few days, sir, you have been a profile of courage, and I thank you."
Blagojevich is the state's first governor to face an impeachment trial and the first public official since a circuit judge in 1833 was impeached but acquitted. The Senate's trial is scheduled to start Jan. 26.
Cullerton said he hoped to move quickly with the impeachment trial and finish by Feb. 4.
"You don't want to have the cloud of an impeachment trial hanging over the normal, regular legislative session," he said.