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Illinois filing seeks to limit governor’s power

Long, Garcia and Janega write for the Chicago Tribune.

Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan on Friday asked the state Supreme Court to remove Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich from office, contending that he was incapable of fulfilling his duties.

Failing that, she asked that the governor be suspended, or barred from appointing anyone to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

Blagojevich and an aide are charged with soliciting bribes in an effort to sell the seat.

“We think it is very clear he is incapable of serving,” Madigan said at a Chicago news conference after her court appearance. “We want to make sure the people of Illinois have a governor who can legitimately fulfill the duties of that office.”

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She asked the court for a temporary restraining order that would remove him from office, citing his political “disability.” If the seven justices accede to Madigan’s unprecedented request, Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn would become governor while Blagojevich battled the federal corruption charges.

Blagojevich was arrested before dawn Tuesday and is free on bond. He has defied widespread calls for his resignation, including from Obama.

If the court won’t remove Blagojevich temporarily, Madigan asks justices to bar him from filling the vacant Senate seat, acting on legislation and contracts, directing finance and highway authorities and disbursing funds. He could still perform ceremonial duties and even draw a paycheck, she said.

In effect, Madigan is asking the court to keep Blagojevich from getting involved in important state government functions, at least until his criminal case is resolved.

As Madigan talked about her legal move at the news conference, the governor spent the morning signing legislation to provide insurance coverage to families with autistic children. His spokesman, Lucio Guerrero, said it was an “attempt to show that he’s still the governor of the state and that it’s still his job to sign bills.”

But Blagojevich also made a quick stop at the federal courthouse to check in with pretrial services.

Madigan’s request to the high court relies on provisions dating to the state’s 1970 Constitutional Convention. Participants said they had vigorously debated the competing powers of high elected officials but nearly nothing about what to do if one of them had grievous political wounds but refused to step aside.

“We would never have imagined, other than in a Grisham novel, we would have anything this bizarre,” said Ronald C. Smith, a member of the convention committee that wrote the provisions. “Who knows how it works?”

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Madigan’s filing suggests Blagojevich might be removed under a clause under which governors are replaced if “unable to serve because of death, conviction on impeachment, failure to qualify, resignation or other disability” -- the “other disability” here being that lawyers and political foes would challenge in court any action he took.

But there are no clear standards for how justices would determine a governor’s fitness to serve, said Ann Lousin, a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. A bill to set them out was abandoned in the 1970s.

“Nobody thought it was that important,” she said.

Madigan, a Democrat, has talked about running for governor in 2010, and her name has been bandied about for Obama’s Senate seat.

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Meantime, U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) responded to a Chicago Tribune report that Jackson’s allies had discussed raising $1 million for Blagojevich to promote the congressman’s appointment to the Senate.

“I’m fighting now for my character, and I’m also fighting for my life,” Jackson told CNN, citing a lingering cloud over his bid to fill the seat. “When the process is over, I profoundly hope that the people will give me my name back.”

Jackson had been scheduled to meet with federal investigators Friday, but the meeting was postponed, his aides said. He did not return calls from the Tribune seeking comment. A spokesman asked the newspaper to present its questions in writing.

As for Obama’s seat, a growing split became apparent among state and national Democrats about whether the next U.S. senator should be appointed by a new governor or chosen in a special election.

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Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who initially backed a special election to take the matter out of Blagojevich’s hands, has joined U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a letter expressing support for Blagojevich to step down and allow Quinn to name a replacement.

If the governor refuses to resign, state legislators said, he could be impeached.

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Tribune reporters Dan Mihalopoulos and David Kidwell contributed to this report.

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