A federal judge on Monday brushed off a request from former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to cancel his upcoming retrial on political corruption charges, suggesting it amounted to a public-relations exercise.
At a pretrial status hearing, Judge James Zagel stopped just short of dressing down defense lawyers, but showed clear disdain for the motion by refusing to even rule on it. Instead, he said the motion would "vanish into thin air" and "die."
The famously stern judge had said during Blagojevich's first trial that he didn't want the high-profile case to descend into theater. His comments Monday signal he intends to maintain the same tight rein on the retrial.
Blagojevich's novel motion had asked Zagel to cancel the second trial and proceed straight to sentencing him on the lone conviction from his first trial, lying to the FBI. Jurors in his first trial were otherwise deadlocked, including on whether he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
His request that the retrial be canceled raised eyebrows in legal circles, with many observers saying the motion wrongly presumed the impeached ex-governor had some leverage or bargaining power on the matter.
Pressed by Blagojevich's attorney Sheldon Sorosky on Monday to rule on the motion, Zagel refused and suggested the request was meant primarily for public consumption.
"It's difficult for me to rule ... because it seems like it was intended for an audience other than the court," he said. The motion, Zagel also said, was not properly presented to the court.
Sorosky said after the hearing that the defense could push again for a ruling from Zagel, noting how underdogs had prevailed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament this month.
"One never knows," he said. "Look at the March Madness tournament. A No. 1 team lost _ Pittsburgh."
Blagojevich, 54, faces a maximum five-year prison sentence on the conviction of lying to the FBI. The retrial, at which he faces 20 charges, is set to start April 20.
Zagel noted Monday that he didn't have the authority to simply call off a trial _ something attorneys for the federal government can do in some circumstances as part of a plea deal with a defendant.
"(The motion) asks for something I'm not entitled to do," Zagel said. "It asks me to exercise the power of the executive branch."
While the motion had asked that the retrial be cancelled and the former governor sentenced on the single conviction, it insisted that Blagojevich wasn't conceding any guilt. He has maintained throughout that he is innocent of wrongdoing.
The motion cited financial woes brought on by an alleged failure of the government to foot the former governor's legal bills, saying it hampered defense preparations for the retrial. Hours after the motion was filed, a court official said checks were on their way to Blagojevich's attorneys.
The former governor had drawn from a nearly $3 million fund for his legal expenses, but it ran dry as the initial trial finished. Zagel later ruled Blagojevich would be allowed to retain only two lawyers and a paralegal on the taxpayer's dime.
The issue of attorneys' pay did not come up in court Monday.
Zagel did rule Monday on other defense requests filed over the past several weeks.
He declined a request to lift a seal on hundreds of hours of FBI wiretap recordings that underpin the prosecution's case. Defense attorneys wanted the option of releasing tapes publicly as they see fit, including ones never played in court during the first trial. Zagel said he was keeping the order sealing the recordings in place.
"I want the case to be tried in the courtroom and nowhere else," he said.