Judges considering an appeal by imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich spent much of oral arguments Friday focusing on one question: At what point does run-of-the-mill political horse-trading veer into corruption?
During an hour-long hearing, three judges of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals frequently interrupted a prosecutor and pressed her to explain just how the former Democratic governor's actions had strayed beyond what is otherwise acceptable in politics.
"If you could help me with this, I'd be so grateful: Where is the line that differentiates legal horse-trading from a federal offence that puts you in prison?" Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner asked at one point.
Attorneys for Blagojevich, who was convicted of trying to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat, among other things, want the court to toss his convictions. At the very least, they want to court to slash years off of his 14-year prison term, which is one of the longest ever imposed for corruption in a state where four of the last seven governors went prison.
Blagojevich, who was once a contestant on NBC's "Apprentice," didn't attend the hearing; he remained at the Colorado prison where he's serving his sentence. But his wife, Patti Blagojevich, watched the proceedings, sometimes shaking her head when she disagreed with what was being said.
After the hearing, she told reporters she held out hope that her husband, who turned 57 years old on Tuesday, will win his freedom and return home to her and their two school-aged daughters.
"He's missed so many birthdays and holidays and now this is going on. We've just gone through our second Thanksgiving, coming up on our second Christmas without him," she said.
FBI agents arrested then-Gov. Blagojevich five years ago this week, and jurors convicted him of wide-ranging charges in 2011, including for trying to profit from his power to name someone to President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat.
That allegation was at the core of Friday's hearing.
In seeking a cabinet post — possibly as secretary of health and human services — in exchange for a Senate appointment, Blagojevich was merely seeking to further political causes he'd long championed, including health care, Blagojevich attorney Leonard Goodman told judges.
"Mr. Blagojevich's defense is, 'I thought this was (legal) political horse trading,'" said Goodman, adding that Blagojevich was an avid student of political history and was therefore conscious of not crossing that line. "This wasn't some backroom deal."
Appellate judges often play devil's advocate, so questions they pose don't necessarily indicate that they are leaning for or against quashing a conviction. The three-judge panel in Chicago, however, clearly regarded the question of what is and isn't legal politicking as paramount.
Judge Frank Easterbrook, who has the reputation of liking to make attorneys squirm, even compared Blagojevich's bid to land a Cabinet seat to how President Dwight Eisenhower named Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court after Warren offered Eisenhower extensive political support during the 1952 campaign.
"It would be an act of shysterism to say that was OK, and this (Blagojevich's bid) was not," Easterbrook said. He added, "If I understand your position, Earl Warren should have gone to prison, Dwight Eisenhower should have gone to prison. ... What's different between that trade and this?"
Judge Rovner echoed that sentiment, saying, "Politics in part is winning friends and influencing people using the appointment power. It is sort of a time honored way in politics ... is it not?
Bonamici told the judges there was an important distinction, in that Blagojevich sought favors to profit from them personally, not to further his political causes.
"The defendant's message was that he wanted something for himself," Bonamici said.
In the most notorious excerpt from hundreds of hours of wiretaps, Blagojevich can be heard cursing as he talks about Obama's vacated seat, saying, "I've got this thing and it's f------ golden. And I'm just not giving it up for f------ nothing."
Judges have already seen the 100-page appeal that defense lawyers filed in July and the government's 169-page response that was filed last month. The panel isn't expected to issue a ruling on Blagojevich's appeal for at least several weeks. If it goes against him, he could try to appeal to the nation's highest court, though there's no guarantee the Supreme Court would even agree to hear his case.
Blagojevich's appeal seems to face long odds.
Appellate judges at the 7th Circuit have a reputation for rarely quashing convictions unless a lower court's errors are egregious. According to 2012 court statistics, its judges reversed lower court findings in only around 15 percent of appeals.