Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich will likely remain in prison until 2024 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of his conviction Monday.
The justices rejected the disgraced governor’s final appeal, which argues the federal courts lack a uniform standard for extortion cases.
“From the beginning, we’ve had faith in the system and have felt the court would bring Rod back to us,” Patti Blagojevich, the former governor’s wife, told the Chicago Tribune. “Now, with the judiciary no longer an option, we’ll have to put our faith elsewhere and find another way.”
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Blagojevich’s attorneys say his conviction for extortion was reached under the wrong legal standard. The former governor was convicted on anti-corruption charges in connection with a pay-to-play scheme related to the sale of Barack Obama’s former Senate seat.
A 1991 case called McCormick v. U.S. explains that extortion in the campaign contribution context is only unlawful when a politician accepts a donation in exchange for an explicit promise or undertaking. However, a different case, Evans v. U.S., makes it unlawful to accept a contribution knowing a donor made it with certain expectations.
His petition claims federal appeals courts are divided as to how to reconcile these two cases, while the government says Blagojevich’s lawyers are manufacturing a non-existent controversy. The Court is much more likely to intervene when multiple federal appellate courts disagree about the same question of law.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sets precedent for the jurisdiction where Blagojevich was convicted, has embraced the weaker Evans standard. The former governor’s lawyers say the Supreme Court should clarify which case controls extortion prosecutions, toss out the conviction, and order a new trial.
Free speech advocates say the Evans standard is dangerous, and lends itself to prosecutorial overreach. The Institute for Free Speech submitted an amicus (or “friend-of-the-court”) brief urging the justices to take the case, arguing the Evans standard is so vague and overbroad that it allows prosecutors to bring cases based only on the subjective expectations of donors. They also fear it helps entrench incumbents, as it makes fundraising more difficult for first-time candidates.
A coalition of elected officials, including six members of the Illinois congressional delegation, also filed a brief supporting Blagojevich.
At this stage, Blagojevich’s best hope may be a presidential pardon or commutation. President Donald Trump has not publicly commented on the case since taking office, but the governor was a contestant on “The Apprentice” and the pair developed an amicable relationship.
Blagojevich is seven years into his sentence. He is currently detained at a federal facility near Denver.
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