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When a judge matters

With his sentence for Blagojevich, Zagel will speak volumes about Illinois corruption

December 7, 2011

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Wednesday dawns with expectancy and, for federal convict Rod Blagojevich, dread. He returns to a huge courtroom with warm wood paneling and cold fluorescent light. His attorneys spent much of Tuesday urging U.S. District Judge James Zagel to give the defrocked governor the lightest sentence possible. Now prosecutors will reaffirm their argument that Blagojevich, guilty on 18 criminal counts, deserves 15 to 20 years. Blagojevich will have an opportunity to speak. And Zagel will rule.

What the judge says in his soft bench voice will echo across a state where previous sentences for guilty officials haven't deterred a culture of political sleaze. There were hints Tuesday that the enduring public corruption here frustrates Zagel. But for all of its dark excitement and hallway guessing, Tuesday's hearing was bleak. Sad. Infuriating. Wednesday will be the same. Here's why:

In 2002 and 2006, citizens repulsed by Gov. George Ryan's lawlessness entrusted their hopes, and their state government, to a self-proclaimed reformer. Blagojevich betrayed them with a six-year crime spree. He even tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat that belongs to those same people of Illinois. Tuesday came and went without testimony from citizens who lost fair chances at government careers, or companies that lost fair chances at state contracts, because on Blagojevich's watch the fix was in.

Zagel alluded to this collateral damage Tuesday in his comments and questions. He asked whether an unrelated corruption case cited by a defense lawyer had damaged citizens' "trust and confidence." He invoked a prosecution argument that if moderate sentences haven't deterred criminals, "perhaps sentences should be raised." And he dismissed as "absurd" a key defense argument that Blagojevich wasn't an organizer of the corruption around him. The then-governor proved that leadership, Zagel suggested, not by the stature of his office, but by his actions, his "extensive criminal activity."

Most significant: Zagel accepted prosecutors' argument that even if Blagojevich didn't consummate his bribery schemes, his intent to do so should be factored into his sentence. The judge also accepted as correct the prosecutors' calculation that federal sentencing guidelines make Blagojevich eligible for a term of 30 years to life — although the judge added that he agrees with the feds that such a long sentence is "simply not appropriate in the context of this case." Blagojevich reacted stoically, clasping his hands and grating his thumbs against one another.

Defense attorneys begged for mercy, citing "the devastation that his absence would cause for his family." Zagel inquired why that makes Blagojevich different from all the other defendants who stand for sentencing. We'll learn Wednesday whether the defense response — that Blagojevich's commitment to his family is "extraordinary" — sways the judge. So, too, with the first admission from the defense that as governor, yes, Blagojevich committed crimes.

Wednesday belongs to Zagel. He has the last word. This is a moment when a judge — and what a judge says — makes a difference.

You couldn't listen to Zagel on Tuesday and not draw two conclusions:

•This judge, a former head of the Illinois State Police, has no tolerance for public corruption.

•This judge is determined to make a difference.