Editorial -- After Gov. Blagojevich's Arrest, How to Fill a Senate Seat Honestly

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ACOURT will determine whether Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is guilty of a "public corruption crime spree" that would make "Lincoln roll over in his grave," as colorfully alleged by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald yesterday. Certainly, Mr. Blagojevich seems to have immersed himself in political sleaze -- from trying to amass questionable campaign contributions to proposing aid to the parent company of the Chicago Tribune on condition that an editorial writer who had criticized the governor be fired. Though the latter charge naturally alarms us, by far the most significant -- and stomach-turning -- allegations concern Mr. Blagojevich's plans to use his power to appoint a new U.S. senator to extract financial or political favors from the incoming Obama administration or its supporters. Whatever the criminal courts decide, that effort will require a response by the Illinois legislature.

By Illinois law, the decision on who will fill the Senate seat vacated by Mr. Obama rests solely with the governor. But Mr. Blagojevich's scheming, some of which was captured on audiotape, has irrevocably compromised his moral authority to make an appointment. One allegation has Mr. Blagojevich seeking to trade the seat for a lucrative job with a union-connected organization and help from the president-elect on the union's national agenda. Another is that he wanted something "tangible up front" to demonstrate a potential Senate appointee's willingness to raise money for him if decided to run for a third term in 2010. It is not clear how far the governor went in carrying out his schemes; it is possible to imagine a defense attorney arguing that Mr. Blagojevich was more talk than action. But after such revelations, anyone named senator by the governor would be tainted. No candidate genuinely qualified for the job and unconnected to Illinois' political corruption should be willing to accept such an appointment.

The best solution to this problem is for the Illinois legislature to call a special election to fill Mr. Obama's seat, as proposed yesterday by the state's senior U.S. senator, Richard J. Durbin. Outgoing Illinois Senate President Emil Jones announced late yesterday that he would call his chamber back into session to pass a bill authorizing the vote "to help restore the confidence of the people of Illinois at this difficult time." If Illinois legislators need encouragement to adopt this admittedly expensive and time-consuming proposition, Mr. Obama -- who has not been implicated in Mr. Fitzgerald's allegations -- should provide it.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company