Heiple Panel Wades into Uncharted Legal Waters Few Precedents to Follow as Investigation Begins

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Byline: Don Thompson Daily Herald State Government Writer

SPRINGFIELD - The idea that a House investigatory committee may not question colleagues of embattled Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice James Heiple is a shrewd political move by former Gov. James R. Thompson.

But it has no basis in the law, contends University of Illinois law Professor Ronald Rotunda, who advised impeachment panels in Nebraska and Alaska.

Then there's the double-jeopardy question Thompson raised: can the House constitutionally consider whether Heiple improperly tried to avoid four traffic tickets since 1992, because that matter is pending before the Illinois Courts Commission.

"This is stormy and uncharted waters," said Thompson, noting that there is little precedent for what constitutes impeachable offenses, or even how to proceed with an investigation.

That is prompting a host of esoteric legal questions that will plague a special bipartisan Illinois House investigatory committee. The very public legal thrust-and-parry is already starting to read like something out of a John Grisham novel before the committee begins hearings today in Springfield to determine whether to recommend that Heiple be impeached.

Thompson, for instance, said "judicial privilege" may bar the committee from asking Heiple's fellow justices and employees of the court whether he improperly appointed his friend to chair the court's disciplinary commission and his former law clerk to act as secretary of the commission.

"You can't go into the heart of the Supreme Court and inquire about what one justice said to another," said Thompson.

But Rotunda said that doesn't apply in Heiple's case.

"Illinois statutes list a whole bunch of privileges. …