McDonnell decision looms as high court term wraps up

WASHINGTON — After more than a year of appeals, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell should finally learn his fate this week, when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to deliver its decision in his public corruption case.

McDonnell was found guilty of 11 counts on charges that he accepted more than $170,000 worth of gifts and loans from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting vitamin products for Williams’ company, Star Scientific. His wife, Maureen, was similarly convicted on nine counts and has filed a separate appeal.

McDonnell has denied any wrongdoing and is hoping to avoid serving a two-year sentence in a federal prison. He has been allowed to remain free throughout his trial and appeals process.

During oral arguments before the court in April, the justices were concerned that the existing federal laws might give too much latitude to prosecutors to criminalize the everyday steps politicians take to help those they represent.

Although the court is expected to rule in McDonnell’s favor, the justices could issue one of several possible opinions, said Jeffrey Bellin, a professor at the William and Mary Law School.

One likely scenario is that the court would send the case back for a new trial and a new set of jury instructions that would offer a more narrow definition of public corruption, Bellin said.

But the court could also decide that no jury could have reasonably found McDonnell guilty using a more limited set of jury instructions, and essentially acquit the former governor, Bellin said.

Or the court could strike down the statutes relied on by prosecutors to try such cases for being too vague.

“That would be the biggest ruling. Obviously that would be a good ruling for McDonnell. But it also means that the government couldn’t go forward under these statutes against anyone.”

With an eight-justice court since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, however, a 4-4 decision would uphold the lower court ruling. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond, repeatedly rejected McDonnell’s appeals and even ordered him to begin serving his sentence last August. He immediately asked the high court that he be allowed to remain out of prison while he took his case to Washington.

The federal investigation that plagued McDonnell’s last year in office, and his ultimate conviction, marked a dramatic demise for the popular governor, who was once considered a possible vice presidential candidate. The trial, and even letters of support from the McDonnells’ daughters, featured sordid details about their personal lives and their rocky marriage.

McDonnell was the first Virginia governor ever convicted of a crime.

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