HARTFORD, Conn. – The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Friday that Gov. John G. Rowland (search) must testify before a committee considering his impeachment, making him the first sitting chief executive in U.S. history ordered to appear before a legislative body.
In a 5-2 ruling, the court upheld an earlier decision by a lower court judge, dismissing the governor's arguments that the Legislature was intruding on the separation of powers among branches of government by ordering him to testify.
Rowland is under investigation for accepting gifts from friends, state contractors and employees. He is also the subject of a parallel federal corruption investigation. The three-term Republican has said he provided nothing in return for the gifts and has not compromised his office.
Ross Garber (search), the governor's legal counsel, said he planned to discuss the ruling with the governor before deciding whether Rowland will appear before the committee. He said there are no plans to file any other lawsuits.
"I continue to believe those proceedings are unfair to the governor and the office of the governor. Any decision will be made in light of those facts," Garber said.
Although committee members said they did not expect Rowland would ultimately testify, they did not plan to enforce the subpoena.
"It serves no purpose to bring the governor into these proceedings in handcuffs," said Democratic Rep. John Wayne Fox, co-chairman of the committee. He said the panel could employ a more severe remedy by referring to his lack of cooperation in an article of impeachment.
About 200 people, including lawyers from around the state and a retired chief justice, attended Friday's historic two-hour hearing in the ornate courtroom. It is unusual for the court to issue a same-day ruling.
"Throughout the sweep of history, there has never been a case like this," Garber said.
Never before has a sitting leader in the United States actually been ordered to testify in front of a legislative body, lawyers on both sides have said. The lower court ruling referred to issues that surrounded Presidents Nixon, Clinton and Johnson.
If the committee recommends the articles of impeachment and the full House approves them, Rowland would have to temporarily step aside as a Senate trial begins. Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell (search) would then run the state in the interim. The committee, which is scheduled to meet again Monday, faces a June 30 deadline to make a recommendation.
Garber argued that the subpoena "treats the governor as a subservient officer." He said Rowland would be "hauled in" to testify for an unknown amount of time about an unknown number of subjects — a move that could encourage future lawmakers to demand a governor testify at their whim on more mundane issues such as the budget.
Cynthia Arato, a private attorney hired by the inquiry committee, said Rowland is claiming he has absolute immunity against being compelled to testify — a special immunity she said does not exist. Arato pointed out how the courts have ruled that the judicial branch of government can subpoena a governor to testify, and said the Legislature should receive the same treatment.
"We're all co-equal branches," she said.
The dissenting judges, Chief Justice William Sullivan and Justice Peter Zarella, said it was unnecessary for the court to intervene.
"The court should not reach out and decide difficult constitutional questions involving the balance of powers between the legislature and the chief executive in the absence of an immediate and compelling need to do so," they wrote.
Buckner F. Melton Jr., an impeachment historian at Mercer University in Georgia, said the ruling could reach outside Connecticut, making legislators across the country more willing to subpoena their governors in future impeachment cases. Though the Connecticut ruling is not binding in other states, it would be considered because there is so little impeachment case law, he said.
During the committee hearing Friday, a forensic accountant testified that Rowland paid about $20,000 last year for work done at his summer cottage six years earlier.
The late payments came shortly after Rowland settled ethics complaints for other issues and around the same time as revelations that a state commissioner may have violated the law by accepting free architectural drawings from a state contractor, the accountant, Martin Lippe, told the committee.
Rowland's attorney, William Dow III (search), portrayed many of the people involved in the cottage work as longtime friends of the governor.