Editorial: How blind is justice in Lincoln's Land?

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan is still a felon, according to two-thirds of a federal appeals court panel that upheld his conviction Tuesday, but he'll remain a free one for at least a little while longer.

Sixteen months after being convicted and nearly a year after being sentenced to 6.5 years in prison for using his considerable influence to reward pals and elevate himself politically, Ryan has yet to spend a night behind bars. Revenge may best be a dish served cold - and slow - but the kind of justice that sends a necessary message ought to be microwaveable, served hot and in a hurry.

Instead, the Rev. Duane and Janet Willis have had to wait nearly 13 years for their justice. That's how long it has been since their six children died in a fiery van crash on a Wisconsin interstate, a tragedy precipitated by another motorist who shouldn't have been on the road and perhaps wouldn't have been were it not for the corruption Ryan fostered and allowed to fester in his then-secretary of state's office.

Ryan potentially was just 72 hours from reporting to a penitentiary when the three-member panel representing the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he could stay free on bond pending an appeal of his case to the full, 11-member court, and perhaps beyond that if necessary to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Ryan defense team is pinning its hopes on the dissenting opinion of Judge Michael Kanne, who condemned a “flood of errors” in the original trial, calling its handling “dysfunctional” while saying it should have resulted in a mistrial. Such “en banc,” or full-court, hearings are rare, but “this is an extraordinary case,” said Ryan attorney James R. Thompson.

Unfortunately, not so “extraordinary” is the political corruption that has become culturally embedded in a state that has few if any rivals in that regard. The 75 convictions stemming from this one Operation Safe Road investigation attest to that. And so the major players here will forgive Illinoisans who fear that the fix is in again and that Ryan will never be punished in any freedom-depriving way for his crimes.

More than a few will find the relationships here a bit too cozy - and conflicting - for comfort. Ryan's free attorney, Thompson, is himself a former governor; Ryan was his lieutenant governor. One judge on the appeals court reportedly is married to an attorney employed in Thompson's firm. Some other career connections between the court and the counselor have raised questions, too.

Such perceptions may not be fair. The relationships cited may have no bearing on the final outcome. But cynicism is understandable in a state that has seen three ex-governors convicted in 35 years, with an investigation ongoing into the current administration. (A bit of interesting if ironic history: Then-prosecutor Thompson earned the first of those, against Otto Kerner.) It's embarrassing.

Look, no one should celebrate the prospect of Ryan spending what remains of his 70s in a jail cell. Absolutely, he was entitled to a fair trial, and two of the three judges believe that, all things considered, he got one. If it takes a couple more months to confirm that, not much harm done.

But harm is very much done not only to the credibility of state government in Illinois but to the foundations of democracy itself when average citizens are led to believe that clout trumps the crime, that the powerful and privileged answer to a lesser standard of justice than they do.

George Ryan lost his pension. But that's not punishment enough if the appeals court ultimately agrees that he is guilty and that he had his chance - a fair one - to prove himself otherwise. In that case Ryan must serve some jail time, not only to begin restoring the faith that many Illinoisans have lost in their government, but to show the next politician who comes along thinking the rules don't apply to him what a mistake that belief is.

Peoria Journal Star