CHICAGO – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered a lower court to look at former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's bid to overturn his corruption convictions, providing a slim chance that the imprisoned Republican could win a new trial.
The decision marked one of the few significant rulings that have come in Ryan's favor since he was convicted of taking kickbacks for steering state business to insiders, among other corruption schemes. When told of the court's decision, the 78-year-old former governor sounded pleased, said Jim Thompson, one of Ryan's attorneys.
"He was very gratified ... I could hear it in his voice," Thompson, himself a former Illinois governor, told The Associated Press. "This is his first legal victory since proceedings against him started more than six years ago."
The high court took issue with how Chicago's 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached its decision to reject his appeal, but it stopped well short of overturning Ryan's convictions. Any new trial, if it happened, would focus solely on several fraud convictions, Thompson said.
It will take time for the legal issues to play out, said another Ryan attorney, Albert Alschuler.
"We hope that, ultimately, this Supreme Court action means a new trial," he said. "It certainly won't be happen tomorrow."
Ryan, who has denied wrongdoing, is serving the tail end of a 6 1/2-year sentence in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., on multiple convictions, which in addition to fraud included conspiracy, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI. His successor as governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, also in prison for corruption; he began serving a 14-year sentence in March.
Even if Ryan wins a new trial, Thompson said, prosecutors may not have the stomach for another costly, time-consuming trial and could agree to have Ryan resentenced on the convictions not in dispute. That could lead to his release on time served, he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, Randall Samborn, declined to comment on the Supreme Court decision.
Ryan was convicted in 2006 of steering state business to insiders while secretary of state and governor, and receiving vacations and gifts in return. He also was accused of halting investigations into state employees exchanging bribes for truck driver's licenses.
The federal appeals court rejected Ryan's appeal last year shortly after the death of his wife of 55 years, Lura Lynn Ryan. The former governor was released for several hours to be at his wife's side before she died, though he wasn't allowed to attend her funeral.
The main legal question at issue is whether Ryan waived any objections during his trial to supposedly faulty jury instructions.
In upholding Ryan's convictions, the appeals court concluded that defense attorneys did not make a timely objection to alleged jury instructions about "honest services" laws and, even if they had, Ryan's conviction would not have been affected.
Defense lawyers have long criticized honest services laws as too vague and a last resort of prosecutors in corruption cases that lack the evidence to prove money is changing hands — and the Supreme Court largely agreed in a ruling in 2010.
The ruling sharply curtailed "honest services" laws, with the justices saying such laws must be applied to clear instances of bribery or kickbacks. Ryan's appeal last year was one of several attempts to overturn his convictions based on that ruling.
During Ryan's appeal a year ago, government prosecutors said they did not think Ryan had defaulted on his chance to bring up the Supreme Court's "honest services" decision. But the appellate judges in Chicago disregarded prosecutors on that point.
In a separate case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that appellate courts could sometimes ignore prosecutors' view. In Ryan's case, however, the high court justices said the 7th Circuit should look at that issue anew.
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Holland reported from Washington, D.C.