CHICAGO — Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Monday intends to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 2009 impeachment proceedings against him and his subsequent ban on running for office in Illinois.
The move comes nearly 18 months after Blagojevich was released from federal prison when former President Donald Trump commuted the remainder of his 14-year sentence. The ex-politician, who now refers to himself as a “Trump-ocrat,” served nearly eight years in a Colorado prison after his conviction on corruption charges.
In an interview with Chicago TV station WLS, Blagojevich insisted — speaking directly to his wife, Patti — that he had no plans to run for office, but claimed the Illinois Senate’s prohibition on him holding state or local office is discriminatory.
“I do feel like it’s a violation of not only my right, but the right of the people to elect whoever they want to elect, or choose whoever they want to choose, vote for or vote against whoever they want to vote for or against,” the ex-governor said. “It’s a voting rights issue.”
Blagojevich was arrested in December of 2008 after a federal investigation into his attempt to sell then-President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat as he mulled an appointment to the soon-to-be-vacated position. Prior to his arrest, Blagojevich had also been investigated by state and federal authorities for other alleged corrupt acts related to state hiring, campaign contribution solicitation and improper awards for state contracts, some of which also ended up in the federal cases against him.
After the Illinois House voted unanimously to impeach Blagojevich in January of 2009, the state Senate convicted him, removing him from office, and voted unanimously to bar him from running for state or local office in Illinois. The ex-governor is allowed to run for federal office, however, including for his old congressional seat, which he held for six years before running for governor in 2002.
Blagojevich’s assertion that being blocked from running for state office is unconstitutional is similar to a losing argument made in federal court by a man barred from running for a local school board a decade ago. The case ended up at the Seventh Circuit Appellate Court, which in 2014 ruled an Illinois election law banning people with certain convictions on their records from running for office does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.
“The right to run for or hold public office is not a fundamental right,” the court wrote in its opinion. “Thus, a ban on felons running for elective office is valid if it is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Illinois’s stated interest in barring felons from elective office is to ensure ‘public confidence in the honesty and integrity of those serving in state and local offices.’”
The court also ruled the law doesn’t violate the First Amendment.
The law prevents those convicted of so-called “infamous” crimes like murder, rape, sexual assault, burglary, arson and selling narcotics, but also includes non-violent crimes like perjury and bribery. Blagojevich’s first trial ended with him convicted on a charge of lying to the FBI, and the subsequent trial ended with the jury finding him guilty on 17 charges, including counts of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery.
While the law has long exempted those who have received official pardons — a different legal move from the commutation Trump granted — an election overhaul law passed by the General Assembly this spring now allows for those with “infamous” convictions on their records to run for office if he or she has received a “restoration of rights by the Governor.”
The ex-governor also claims the impeachment proceedings against him were unconstitutional, as he was not allowed to call and question witnesses or play all of the wiretapped recordings the FBI made of his phone calls during its investigation — a claim he also made during and after both of his trials in 2010 and 2011.
The expletive-laden tapes made headlines across the country, and fresh tapes surfaced during the 2018 gubernatorial primary between Blagojevich and then-private citizen JB Pritzker, who won the 2018 election.
After his release from prison last year, the Illinois Supreme Court officially disbarred Blagojevich from practicing law in the state. But the ex-governor has dipped his toes back into politics, with a weekly show on WLS radio. He’s also appeared in a campaign ad for a municipal race this spring and fundraiser appearances, including for Illinois Republicans.
Blagojevich, who for years became the face of Illinois corruption, has also offered his unsolicited opinions on the most recent wave of corruption cases.
When federal prosecutors named former House Speaker Mike Madigan “Public Official A” in charging documents against utility giant Commonwealth Edison last summer, the ex-governor, who had frequently tangled with his fellow Democrat while in office, quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. in a statement decrying “the entrenched establishment in Springfield.”
This story will be updated.
Hannah Meisel covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio.