The Supreme Court said former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell can avoid prison while the justices decide whether to accept his petition arguing that his conviction on corruption charges be overturned.
The decision was a dramatic–perhaps unprecedented–win for the former governor, who lost a lower court appeal and who would have had to begin serving a two-year prison sentence without the Supreme Court’s intervention.
None of the justices signaled disagreement with the decision.
The court’s order concerns only his incarceration. The justices will not decide for months whether McDonnell’s appeal deserves a hearing before the high court.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted nearly a year ago of public corruption for lending the prestige of the governor’s office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison; she to a year and a day.
Both, though, were allowed out on bond with their appeals pending. But the former governor’s conviction was upheld by a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, and that court said he could not stay out of prison while asking the Supreme Court to hear his case.
McDonnell’s attorneys argued that Virginia’s 71st governor “may well complete his 2-year prison sentence” before the Supreme Court rendered a decision on his petition to have the conviction overturned. It would be wrong, they said, if he were to later “have the critical legal premise for the conviction invalidated, or the fundamental unfairness of the trial confirmed.”
“A 24-month sentence is a 24-month sentence, whether it begins in August 2015 or March 2016,” they told the court.
But U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the federal government, replied that McDonnell could not meet the high standards for being released on bond: that the Supreme Court was likely to take his case and overturn the decisions of lower courts.
Verrilli told the court that the government could not find a single instance in which the justices had allowed someone to remain free after his conviction had been upheld by an appeals court.
McDonnell’s application said his case presented two issues worth the court’s time: whether the conduct for which he was convicted was actually illegal and whether the lower court judge had made sure he was tried by an impartial jury.
McDonnell said he was convicted for benign gestures such as arranging meetings or attending public events with Williams. He claimed it was a “political prosecution” and the “first time in the history of the nation that an official has been convicted of corruption despite never putting an official thumb on the scales of any actual government decision.”
But Verrilli’s response noted the appeals court’s finding that the government exceeded its burden by proving that McDonnell “did, in fact, use the power of his office to influence governmental decisions” on the issues important to Williams.
“When a sitting state governor secretly receives payments totaling more than $177,000 over two years, in exchange for agreeing to help the payor obtain valuable benefits through the governor’s influence over other state officials, his conduct readily falls outside” the kinds of favors public officials routinely perform, Verrilli argued.
McDonnell’s claim did not raise the broad questions of law that is the stuff of Supreme Court review, the government argued, but “instead presents a sound application of settled legal principles to the facts established at trial.”
Hank Asbill, a McDonnell attorney said on Monday that the legal team is “obviously very pleased with the decision” to allow the former governor to remain free while the high court weighs whether to take the case.
Without the Supreme Court’s order, McDonnell’s case would have been sent back to U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer, who would have selected a date by which the former governor was to report to prison. Federal officials would then have picked a facility appropriate for him, taking into account available bed space, his particular security risks and other factors. McDonnell had requested to remain near his home in the Richmond area, possibly at the Federal Correctional Institution, Petersburg.