HARTFORD -- The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Governor John G. Rowland must testify before a legislative committee considering his impeachment, making him the first sitting chief executive in US history ordered to appear before a legislative body.
''I am hoping the governor will choose to cooperate with the committee," said Representative Arthur O'Neill, a Southbury Republican who is cochairman of the House Select Committee of Inquiry.
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.
The court's 5-2 ruling upholding an earlier decision by a Superior Court judge marked a constitutional climax in the nearly five-month probe.
''The subpoena is not inconsistent with the separation of powers provision of the state Constitution," the majority said.
But Chief Justice William Sullivan and Justice Peter Zarella said it was unnecessary for the court to intervene.
''The courts 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.
Ross Garber, 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 at the moment to file any other lawsuits.
''We still have concerns about the structure of these proceedings," Garber told reporters.
Lawmakers said if Rowland ignores the subpoena and decides not to testify, they will not compel him to appear.
Rowland said the demand for him to testify was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.
''Throughout the sweep of history, there has never been a case like this," Garber said.
The committee's subpoena, Garber argued, ''treats the governor as a subservient officer." Rowland, he said, 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. If a court's compelling of testimony does not violate the separation of powers, the compelling of testimony by the impeachment committee doesn't," she argued.
Arato argued that Rowland's testimony was needed because the committee's recommendation could ultimately reverse an election. Many potential witnesses for the inquiry committee have declined to testify, seeking protection under the Fifth Amendment, therefore creating gaps in evidence.
''He's the key witness here. The investigation is about his conduct and intentions," Arato said.
If the inquiry committee recommends articles of impeachment and the full House approves them, Rowland would have to temporarily step aside as a Senate trial begins. Lieutenant Governor M. Jodi Rell would then run the state in the interim.
Given the fact an impeachment also means temporary removal, Arato said, it is very important the inquiry committee have all the facts. About 200 people attended yesterday's two-hour court hearing.