CHICAGO -- George Ryan's hopes of staying out of prison got a boost Thursday when a U.S. Supreme Court justice asked the government to reply to the former governor's request for bail while he appeals his corruption conviction.
"It's encouraging," said a plainly upbeat former governor James R. Thompson, Ryan's attorney, after receiving the news from Washington.
Ryan, 73, is due to report to a minimum security prison camp near Duluth, Minn., on Wednesday to start serving his 6 1/2-year sentence if the Supreme Court doesn't give him a new bond.
Court officials in Washington announced Thursday afternoon that Justice John Paul Stevens had asked the government to reply in writing to a petition for bail filed with him by Ryan's lawyers the day before.
Stevens set a deadline of 1 p.m. Monday for the government's brief.
"It means that in Justice Stevens' view, there's some plausibility to Gov. Ryan's claim and before ruling he wants to hear from the government," said David Yellen, dean of the Loyola University law school. "You can't take it as a signal that he's likely to grant the request. I still think it's unlikely that he will. But still they (Ryan's side) have to be pleased that he didn't just dismiss it out of hand."
Asked just how much optimism was warranted, Thompson said: "Who knows? I haven't seen the government's reply yet. But it's encouraging."
Thompson had said Wednesday that he believed the Supreme Court hadn't set bail for someone appealing a conviction in at least 35 years but added that he never had seen a stronger case than Ryan's for doing so.
Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, which prosecuted Ryan and co-defendant Larry Warner, declined to comment.
Ryan was convicted of steering big-money state contracts to Warner and other friends, using state resources to run his campaigns and killing an investigation of bribes paid in exchange for truck drivers licenses.
Ryan and Warner have been free on bond since their April 2006 convictions. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday effectively canceled their bonds and told them to pack up and head for prison next week.
Thompson immediately filed the petition for bail with Stevens, the justice who handles such matters originating in the Chicago-based 7th Circuit.