Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich speaks during an interview with Barbara Walters in 2009 on “The View.” (Heidi Gutman/ABC via Associated Press)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit reversed today a few of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s convictions, with an interesting analysis of the difference between political-act-for-political-act deals (allowed) and political-act-for-personal-benefit deals (criminal). From the opinion, by Judge Frank Easterbrook (some paragraph breaks added):

Blagojevich now asks us to hold that the evidence is insufficient to convict him on any count. The argument is frivolous. The evidence, much of it from Blagojevich’s own mouth, is overwhelming. To the extent there are factual disputes, the jury was entitled to credit the prosecution’s evidence and to find that Blagojevich acted with the knowledge required for conviction.

But a problem in the way the instructions told the jury to consider the evidence requires us to vacate the convictions on counts that concern Blagojevich’s proposal to appoint Valerie Jarrett to the Senate in exchange for an appointment to the Cabinet.

A jury could have found that Blagojevich asked the President-elect for a private-sector job, or for funds that he could control, but the instructions permitted the jury to convict even if it found that his only request of Sen. Obama was for a position in the Cabinet. The instructions treated all proposals alike. We conclude, however, that they are legally different: a proposal to trade one public act for another, a form of logrolling, is fundamentally unlike the swap of an official act for a private payment.

Because the instructions do not enable us to be sure that the jury found that Blagojevich offered to trade the appointment for a private salary after leaving the Governorship, these convictions cannot stand. …

McCormick v. United States, 500 U.S. 257 (1991), describes the offense [of bribery] as a quid pro quo: a public official performs an official act (or promises to do so) in exchange for a private benefit, such as money. A political logroll, by contrast, is the swap of one official act for another. Representative A agrees with Representative B to vote for milk price supports, if B agrees to vote for tighter controls on air pollution. A President appoints C as an ambassador, which Senator D asked the President to do, in exchange for D’s promise to vote to confirm E as a member of the National Labor Relations Board. Governance would hardly be possible without these accommodations, which allow each public official to achieve more of his principal objective while surrendering something about which he cares less, but the other politician cares more strongly.

A proposal to appoint a particular person to one office (say, the Cabinet) in exchange for someone else’s promise to appoint a different person to a different office (say, the Senate), is a common exercise in logrolling. We asked the prosecutor at oral argument if, before this case, logrolling had been the basis of a criminal conviction in the history of the United States. Counsel was unaware of any earlier conviction for an exchange of political favors. Our own research did not turn one up. It would be more than a little surprising to Members of Congress if the judiciary found in the Hobbs Act, or the mail fraud statute, a rule making everyday politics criminal.

Let’s work this through statute by statute. Section 1951, the Hobbs Act, which underlies Counts 21 and 22, forbids interference with commerce by robbery or extortion. Blagojevich did not rob anyone, and extortion, a defined term, “means the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” The indictment charged Blagojevich with the “color of official right” version of extortion, but none of the evidence suggests that Blagojevich claimed to have an “official right” to a job in the Cabinet.

He did have an “official right” to appoint a new Senator, but unless a position in the Cabinet is “property” from the President’s perspective, then seeking it does not amount to extortion. Yet a political office belongs to the people, not to the incumbent (or to someone hankering after the position). Cleveland v. United States, 531 U.S. 12 (2000), holds that state and municipal licenses, and similar documents, are not “property” in the hands of a public agency. That’s equally true of public positions. The President-elect did not have a property interest in any Cabinet job, so an attempt to get him to appoint a particular person to the Cabinet is not an attempt to secure “property” from the President (or the citizenry at large).

Sekhar v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2720 (2013), shows that the phrase “obtaining of property” in the Hobbs Act must not be extended just to penalize shady dealings. Sekhar holds that a recommendation about investments is not “property” under §1951(b)(2) for two principal reasons: first, in the long history of extortion law it had never before been so understood (similarly, political logrolling has never before been condemned as extortion); second, the making of a recommendation is not transferrable.

The Court restricted “property” to what one owner can transfer to another. By that standard a job in the Cabinet (or any other public job) is not “property” from the employer’s perspective. It is not owned by the person with appointing power, and it cannot be deeded over.

The position may be filled by different people, but the position itself is not a transferrable property interest. A position is “held” or “occupied” but not “obtained,” and under Sekhar something that cannot be “obtained” also cannot be the subject of extortion.

Section 666, the basis (through a conspiracy charge) of Count 23, forbids theft or bribery in publicly funded programs (of which the State of Illinois is one). Count 23 relies on §666(a)(1)(B), which makes it a crime for an agent of a covered organization to solicit “corruptly … anything of value” in connection with a transaction worth $5,000 or more. “Corruptly” refers to the recipient’s state of mind and indicates that he understands the payment as a bribe or gratuity.

It would not be plausible to describe a political trade of favors as an offer or attempt to bribe the other side. What is more, §666(c) provides that the section as a whole does not apply “to bona fide salary, wages, fees, or other compensation paid, or expenses paid or reimbursed, in the usual course of business.” Compensation for a job by someone other than a ghost worker is a “bona fide salary” — and, as we’ve pointed out, the “usual course of business” in politics includes logrolling.

The indictment also charged Blagojevich with wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1343. That the negotiations used the phone system is indisputable, but where’s the fraud? Blagojevich did not try to deceive Sen. Obama. The prosecutor contended that Blagojevich deprived the public of its intangible right to his honest services, which 18 U.S.C. §1346 defines as a form of fraud.

To call this an honest-services fraud supposes an extreme version of truth in politics, in which a politician commits a felony unless the ostensible reason for an official act also is the real one. So if a Governor appoints someone to a public commission and proclaims the appointee “the best person for the job,” while the real reason is that some state legislator had asked for a friend’s appointment as a favor, then the Governor has committed wire fraud because the Governor does not actually believe that the appointee is the best person for the job.

That’s not a plausible understanding of §1346, even if (as is unlikely) it would be valid under the First Amendment as a criminal penalty for misleading political speech. And no matter what one makes of the subject, the holding of Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358 (2010), prevents resort to §1346 to penalize political horse-trading. Skilling holds that only bribery and kickbacks violate §1346. So unless political logrolling is a form of bribery, which it is not, §1346 drops out.

The prosecutor insists, however, that Blagojevich’s situation is different and uncommon because he sought a post in the Cabinet for himself. It isn’t clear to us that this is unusual. The current Secretary of State was appointed to that position from a seat in the Senate, and it wouldn’t surprise us if this happened at least in part because he had performed a political service for the President. Ambassadors, too, come from the House or Senate (or from state politics) as part of political deals.

Some historians say that this is how Earl Warren came to be Chief Justice of the United States: he delivered the California delegation at the 1952 Republican convention to Eisenhower (rather than Senator Taft) in exchange for a commitment to appoint him to the next vacancy on the Supreme Court. Whether this account is correct is debatable, see Jim Newton, and Chief Justice Warren himself denied that a deal had been made (though perhaps a political debt had been incurred). If the prosecutor is right, and a swap of political favors involving a job for one of the politicians is a felony, then if the standard account is true both the President of the United States and the Chief Justice of the United States should have gone to prison.

Yet although historians and political scientists have debated whether this deal was made, or whether if made was ethical (or politically unwise), no one to our knowledge has suggested that it violated the statutes involved in this case. (Whether it might have violated 18 U.S.C. §599, and whether that statute is compatible with the First Amendment, are issues we do not address.)

Let us go through the three statutes again. McCormick holds that a politician’s offer to perform a valuable service can violate §1951 as extortion if it involves a quid pro quo: a public act in exchange for a valuable return promise. We’ve already explained, however, why logrolling does not violate §1951. The exclusion in §666(c) for bona fide employment also applies no matter who gets the job. Who would get the public job does not matter to §1346 either.

Indeed, the analysis in United States v. Thompson, 484 F.3d 877 (7th Cir. 2007), applies to Blagojevich too. Thompson reversed convictions under §666 and §1346 that had been obtained on a theory that a public employee’s interest in keeping her job meant that she violated federal law if she performed any aspect of her job in ways that she knew she shouldn’t. (The asserted error in Thompson was an incorrect ranking of bidders for a travel-services contract.) Thompson holds, among other things, that the interest in receiving a salary from a public job is not a form of private benefit for the purpose of federal criminal statutes.

Put to one side for a moment the fact that a position in the Cabinet carries a salary. Suppose that Blagojevich had asked, instead, that Sen. Obama commit himself to supporting a program to build new bridges and highways in Illinois as soon as he became President. Many politicians believe that public-works projects promote their re-election.

If the prosecutor is right that a public job counts as a private benefit, then the benefit to a politician from improved chances of election to a paying job such as Governor — or a better prospect of a lucrative career as a lobbyist after leaving office — also would be a private benefit, and we would be back to the proposition that all logrolling is criminal. Even a politician who asks another politician for favors only because he sincerely believes that these favors assist his constituents could be condemned as a felon, because grateful constituents make their gratitude known by votes or post-office employment.

What we have said so far requires the reversal of the convictions on Counts 5, 6, 21, 22, and 23, though the prosecutor is free to try again without reliance on Blagojevich’s quest for a position in the Cabinet…. Because many other convictions remain and the district judge imposed concurrent sentences, the prosecutor may think retrial unnecessary — but the judge may have considered the sought-after Cabinet appointment in determining the length of the sentence, so we remand for resentencing across the board….

Appeals court throws out five of 18 convictions against Rod Blagojevich, but says he's to remain incarcerated. (Reuters)