By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — In 2009, Illinois became the last state to impeach and remove their governor. Now, the Alabama Senate is looking to that state for guidance on how to handle an impeachment trial of Gov. Robert Bentley in the Senate — if it comes to that.
The Senate Judiciary subcommittee tasked with crafting the procedure for an impeachment trial met for the first time Thursday morning. As three of the committee members met, they reviewed the Illinois State Senate rules that established the procedure for the impeachment trial of former Gov. Rob Blagojevich.
“One of the best templates out there for us to work with is the fact that the State of Illinois did go through this exact same process with their former governor,” said Sen. Phil Williams, the chair of the subcommittee. “Their template is one that we are considering as a potential model. We have to mesh it with Alabama law.”
Next week, the subcommittee will meet again next Tuesday to consider definitions and terms, the presentation of articles of impeachment from the House and the timing for trial if and once the articles are delivered to the Senate. in what should be a month-long process.
Thursday’s meeting was the first in what should be a month-long process.
Williams said the legislators will also consider whether the impeachment trial should be held in a special session, which would have to be called by Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey in the event the House impeaches Bentley. In Illinois, the impeachment was held during a special session solely called for the impeachment trial.
The subcommittee will also look to US Senate rules for how they handled the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s when he was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice.
“The whole purpose is to make sure that we have the procedures in place in the event that if — and that’s a big if — the House determines that impeachment is warranted,” Williams said. “Right now Alabama has zero procedures for how that is handled.”
In Illinois, the State Senate decided that the normal Rules of Evidence would not apply. Williams said the subcommittee was considering the possibility of suspending the Alabama Rules of Evidence for the Senate trial, which would allow anything relevant to be admissible — even if it’s hearsay that would not normally be admissible in a normal courtroom.
“We’re going to have to weigh our whether we feel that’s appropriate for Alabama considering the circumstances,” Williams said. “It feels odd to me as an attorney to say that the rules as a body, but we as a body would have to figure that out.”
The Alabama Constitution is not usually known for its brevity, but in the case of impeachment, exact specifications are sparse. The entire impeachment provision in the constitution consists of one paragraph.
The last time an Alabama official was impeached was in 1915 when the House considered an impeachment of then-Secretary of State John Purifoy. The House never delivered an impeachment to the Senate and no Senate trial rules were ever drafted.
“We as a body want to be ready,” Williams said. “This is probably one of the largest issues that could possibly come before the body in my whole lifetime. And I’m in my 50s.”
Once the subcommittee drafts the rules, it would be presented to the full Judiciary Committee, which could then pass the rules resolution on to the full Senate for adoption.
Williams, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, and Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, are the members of the subcommittee. They are all attorneys.
“This is huge,” Singleton said. “You’re talking about taking the executive officer of the state to impeach them. That’s something that needs to be taken very seriously. … I just hope nothing ever happens. I’m not fond in trying to say that I’m willing to go on the record saying I’m going to impeach my governor.”
Another problem is likely to cause problems if the House does deliver an impeachment charge to the Senate: the Legislature’s lack of subpoena authority.
“The big difference that we have, though, is that we don’t have subpoena power as a committee or a body in the Legislature,” said Sen. Cam Ward, Judiciary Committee chairman. “So that really creates a totally different dynamic than in other states.”
The lack of subpoena authority would pose a problem would mean that there is no way to require evidence to be produced, either for or against Bentley.
Bentley, who was accused last year of maintaining an extramarital affair with his former top aide, Rebekah Mason, and using State funds to do so, has denied any wrongdoing and said that his affair with Mason wasn’t physical.
He has called the House effort to impeach him “political grandstanding.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said last week that he expects the House to vote on the impeachment before the end of the session.
If the House delivered charges of impeachment against Bentley to the Senate, and the Senate voted to take up the charges and hold a trial for the Governor, he would immediately be suspended pending the result of the trial.
If the Senate found him guilty, he would be permanently removed, and if he is innocent, he could be reinstated. A guilty verdict resulting in a permanent removal of the Governor would require a two-thirds vote of the membership.
Last week, Attorney General Steve Marshall officially recused himself from an active investigation of Bentley and decided to appoint a supernumerary district attorney, former Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks, to oversee the case.