It’s been a year and a half since Rod Blagojevich started his prison sentence in Colorado.
Now that we’re this far in, does anyone feel any better?
Because as it stands now, under even the best of circumstances, the former governor, congressman and state lawmaker of Illinois will be behind bars until he’s in his late 60s. Both his daughters will have grown beyond their school-age years. Last week, one of them sang to him over the phone.
That’s how they celebrated his 57th birthday.
The 14-year sentence doled out by U.S. District James Zagel in December 2011 was perhaps the lengthiest imposed on a defendant convicted of public corruption in Illinois history.
It’s more than many murderers get, including one sentenced by Zagel.
That’s because Blagojevich’s crimes were so unequivocally wrong, and his case, so unquestionably opened and shut, right?
Well, that’s just the problem.
When it comes to Blagojevich’s criminal case, there are two questions I’m asked again and again by various observers: Isn’t 14 years way overboard for Blagojevich? And was his conduct really considered criminal?
For years, the government, as well as Zagel, who oversaw the case, batted down those theories as essentially nonsense.
On Friday, however, the fundamental question about whether Blagojevich’s attempts to benefit from appointing someone to Barack Obama’s Senate seat surfaced in the most weighty of legal environments in our district.
The former chief judge of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the conservative Frank Easterbrook, grilled the government about whether Blagojevich’s conduct amounted to nothing more than political horse trading.
It was an upside-down few minutes when Easterbrook extolled a theory that Blagojevich himself had attempted, unsuccessfully, to put forth in court.
With some passion behind his remarks, Easterbrook asked if there was “any criminal conviction in U.S. history” other than Blagojevich’s in which a politician was convicted for trying to trade one job for another.
“I’m aware of none,” responded the government’s Debra Bonamici.
Her answer seemed to hang in the air for a bit as courtroom observers took that in.
Easterbrook described how in the run-up to the 1952 presidential election, then-California Gov. Earl Warren offered to use his post to “deliver California” for Eisenhower in return for a seat on the Supreme Court. It was a deal that Eisenhower eventually honored.
“If I understand your position, Earl Warren should have gone to prison, Dwight Eisenhower should have gone to prison,” Easterbrook implored. “Can that possibly be right?”
Her eventual answer was nuanced, including explaining the allegations included Blagojevich’s attempt to have a 501c (4) set up for him to head if he appointed Valerie Jarrett to the U.S. Senate.
Yet, the exchange crystallized the questions that for years circled the very heart of this case. They then beg a bigger question — is 14 years fair in a case that still draws those fundamental questions?
Though there’s little benefit from trying to telegraph the jurists’ decision in the case, the Blagojevich side — which also got quizzed by Easterbrook — has got to be feeling hopeful at the least after Friday.
The best chance of getting any reduction in Blagojevich’s sentence would be to knock out counts, since he cannot separately appeal the length of his sentence.
Besides the legal arguments, however, Blagojevich probably has done himself the biggest service yet by maintaining radio silence through his appeal.
There have been no blockbuster interviews or courtroom shenanigans. There’s no assembly of supporters lining up, outside court, asking for autographs.
That’s in sharp contrast to reality TV and the news conferences he would call before his first trial started.
On Friday, Patti Blagojevich kept up the new tradition, keeping her remarks brief.
“I just want to say that during the holiday season, that there isn’t a day or moment that goes by that my daughters and I don’t feel the emptiness of the absence of my husband,” she said. “He’s missed so many birthdays and holidays and . . . now we’ve just gone through our second Thanksgiving, coming up on our second Christmas without him. We just hope and pray that he’ll be home soon with his family.
“We have the utmost confidence in the court, and we put our trust and faith in God.”
It’s an unusual situation for the former political power couple — keeping relatively quiet and letting their legal arguments speak for themselves.
The sobering reality of missed holidays and birthdays will do that.
Regardless of the nuances of legal arguments and motions, the real question is just how many Christmases does Blagojevich need to miss to make up for what some are still not fully convinced was a crime.