Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The allegations in the criminal complaint filed last week against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich portray a level of corruption that is shocking even by the standards of a state in which four prior governors have served time in prison. If proven, the charges will almost certainly result in Blagojevich becoming the fifth.
Among the most tawdry of the allegations in the complaint are these three: (1) Blagojevich pressured the Chicago Tribune to fire editors and writers responsible for editorials critical of Blagojevich, in exchange for gubernatorial assistance with the sale by the Tribune of the Chicago Cubs; (2) Blagojevich attempted to extort campaign contributions from people and entities, including a children's hospital, in exchange for government contracts, grants, and regulatory approvals; and (3) Blagojevich conspired to extract lucrative positions for himself and his wife in government or the private or non-profit sectors in exchange for appointing a U.S. Senator to fill the seat vacated by President-elect Obama.
It is tempting to see Blagojevich as just a criminal who happened to become Governor of Illinois. Certainly, the brazenness of his conduct suggests more than run-of-the-mill political corruption. Blagojevich knew he was being investigated for "pay to play" schemes, but persisted with them anyway.
Nonetheless, the alleged misdeeds of Blagojevich differ only in degree, not in kind, from conduct that is perfectly legal. In examining what was wrong with what he did, we therefore may see the deep flaws in our regular politics. Watching Blagojevich is like looking in a funhouse mirror: the reflection, while exaggerated, is nonetheless real.
The Tribune Shakedown and the First Amendment
Blagojevich's alleged shakedown of the owner of the Chicago Tribune was not merely a violation of the criminal law. It also appears to have violated the First Amendment. The government may not condition a benefit on the relinquishment of a constitutional right.
Yet the "unconstitutional conditions" doctrine is notoriously difficult to apply in First Amendment cases, given the competing constitutional principle that permits government to favor some messages over others. As I explained in a column about a free speech case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, the First Amendment does not require the government to be neutral among the messages it itself conveys. [Mark Godsey]