RICHMOND, Virginia — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell will not have to go to prison while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to review his public corruption convictions, the justices ruled Monday.
The brief order overturned a lower court's decision that would have required McDonnell to report to prison soon to begin serving his two-year sentence. McDonnell has until early November to file a petition asking the Supreme Court to consider his case.
After a series of resounding defeats in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the justices' order gives McDonnell a glimmer of hope. It does not mean McDonnell will prevail, but one of the criteria for getting the stay from the Supreme Court was, as the ex-governor's lawyers put it in court papers, a fair prospect that the justices will reverse the lower court decision.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say they are inclined to take the case, but they collectively thought Mr. McDonnell should remain on bond while this important issue is considered," said Charles E. James Jr., a white-collar defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who watched much of the trial. "That in and of itself is significant."
McDonnell's lawyers said in a written statement that they looked forward to McDonnell being vindicated.
"We are deeply gratified that the Justices have recognized that this case raises substantial and important legal questions, and that Governor McDonnell should not be imprisoned until the Supreme Court has a full opportunity to consider those questions," they said.
The U.S. attorney's office, which opposed McDonnell's bid to remain free, declined to comment on the decision.
The order says that if the Supreme Court refuses to take McDonnell's case, the stay will automatically end. That would set the wheels in motion to send McDonnell to prison.
If the justices agree to hear the case, McDonnell will remain free until they rule on his appeal, the order says.
Many legal experts had said McDonnell's chances of remaining free during his Supreme Court appeal were slim.
"He beat the odds most people were laying for him," James said.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted last September of doing favors for a wealthy vitamin executive in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans and loans. A three-judge panel of the appeals court unanimously upheld the former governor's convictions in July, and the full 15-member court refused to rehear the case.
The panel and the full appeals court also rejected McDonnell's bid to remain free pending his appeal to the Supreme Court. Maureen McDonnell, who was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, remains free while she appeals her convictions to a federal three-judge panel, which will hear arguments in late October.
Bob McDonnell has maintained his innocence and argued that he was unfairly charged for providing routine political courtesies that all politicians dole out. He plans to ask the Supreme Court to consider whether federal bribery laws are too vague.
The ex-governor was convicted on 11 charges. The case derailed the career of the rising Republican star, who had been viewed as a possible running mate to presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
Associated Press Writer Alan Suderman contributed to this report.