Shortly before oral arguments began at the Supreme Court this morning, a pack of journalists in the press alcove gathered together to gaze at an unusual sight: Bob McDonnell, the disgraced former governor of Virginia, was seated in the middle of the courtroom preparing to hear arguments in his own case. In 2014, a jury convicted McDonnell of fraud and extortion under federal ethics laws. McDonnell appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, where he lost; now he is hoping to persuade the Supreme Court that their convictions were legally faulty. (The justices already granted the former governor a surprising, though temporary, reprieve from his two-year prison sentence.)
Before arguments, McDonnell looked calm, content, and slightly smug. I couldn’t see him from my spot during arguments, but he emerged from the courtroom with a stoic half-grin. That makes sense: A majority of the justices appeared skeptical of the government’s case against McDonnell, questioning its broad interpretation of quid pro quo corruption. Justice Stephen Breyer in particular—whose vote will probably be necessary to let McDonnell off the hook—seemed concerned that the Justice Department had overreached, to the detriment of state power and other branches of the federal government.
McDonnell gave a short press conference on the plaza outside the court, thanking “lord Jesus.” Then he was gone, swallowed by a frantic press scrum on his way to the car.
It’s not often that individuals convicted of criminal misconduct get to attend their own SCOTUS arguments: Many are already in prison, often far away from Washington, and some are considered dangerous, rendering their attendance impossible. But the court has already taken several extraordinary steps to keep McDonnell out of prison during his appeal, a reprieve so uncommon that a cynic might be tempted to believe McDonnell’s stature influenced the justices’ decision-making. McDonnell’s presence on Wednesday morning was yet another reminder that this is no ordinary case—and that the ex-governor is no ordinary criminal defendant.