Rahm and Chicago Wait for the Court's Word

The ruling on Emanuel's eligibility could come as early as today

When former President Bill Clinton endorsed Rahm Emanuel for Chicago mayor last week, the candidate called Clinton his friend, mentor and inspiration. Thursday brings a test of the protégé's ability to embody the Clinton penchant for compartmentalization of dueling issues and demons.

For starters, the Illinois Supreme Court is weighing whether to affirm a stunning, arguably wrongheaded, decision to knock him off the Feb. 22 ballot. The 2-1 appellate ruling concluded that he was in violation of eligibility requirements by not actually residing in the city for the year prior to the election, most of that time spent in the West Wing as President Obama's chief of staff.

Since early voting begins Monday, and the printing of 2 million paper ballots has been stalled, the suspicion is that the court will issue a decision no later than Friday, perhaps as early as Thursday.

But Thursday also brings the first de facto candidates debate when the leading rivals surface at an evening forum before the City Club of Chicago. Given a commanding lead in the polls and fundraising, Emanuel will likely be the prime target of rhetorical spitballs from two prime challengers, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun and attorney Gery Chico.

With his maniacal self-discipline, Emanuel has allocated ample "debate prep" time into a characteristically sunrise to late-night campaign schedule. It is a good bet that he will be more prepared than the rivals, though that's obviously no guarantee of success.

And if the court hasn't ruled by day's end, meaning he's definitely at the forum, he might well be prepared for a grossly obvious question or two, such as whether he'd endorse a rival if he were to be knocked off the ballot.

How the court might rule inspires a predictable speculative frenzy in Chicago legal and political circles. It's nearly on a passionate par with unceasing debate, mostly on sports talk radio and in newspaper columns, as to whether Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was somehow a weenie by leaving last Sunday's playoff game against Green Bay with a knee injury.

Yes, it's almost on a par with that civic discussion.

The political pedigree of each judge is being dissected and various conspiracy theories hatched, some rationalizing a reversal of the controversial appellate decision, some supporting the court affirming it.

Intertwined is chatter about a truly curious matter, namely who's actually funding the challenge to the Emanuel candidacy (the key lawyer won't say). Some people believe it's Edward Burke, a powerful alderman who endorsed Chico, while some even proffer the name of Republican strategist Karl Rove. Nobody has any facts to bolster either claim.

The court is 4-3 Democratic in makeup. But trying to make sense of the political divisions is confusing since that GOP doesn't have a dog in this fight. All the candidates in the nonpartisan mayoral race are Democrats, prompting one geography-based theory in which Downstate judges are somehow pitted against those from Cook County, home of Chicago.

Then there's the undeniable fact that one justice is Burke's wife, Anne. Emanuel's lawyers did not ask her to recuse herself nor will she apparently do so on her own. That was made apparent when a business society columnist attended a Wednesday morning fundraiser for Misericordia, a wonderful home for children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities (White House senior advisor David Axelrod's daughter is a resident).

"Aren't we beyond that?" said Mrs. Burke when asked about recusing herself.

"Women have minds of their own. We have spouses in every kind of business. Are we returning to the days of Myra Bradwell," she said, alluding to an Illinois suffragette who was the state's first female lawyer but not before she was initially barred from the practice because of her gender.

Most of those I sought out are betting on a split decision of a 4-3 sort. However, I did float a conspiracy theory of my own, namely a so-called per curiam ruling.

In that instance, there would be a unanimous but unsigned ruling.  "Maybe a per curiam indeed!" came an email response from Ann Lousin, an expert in Illinois constitutional law at John Marshall Law School. "With nobody filing a dissent! No fingerprints!"

I e-mailed back as to whether she really, really thought my notion was credible.  "I have known them to do that, albeit rarely," she wrote back. "When it's a hot potato, who wants his fingers on it?"