WASHINGTON - I. Lewis Libby Jr., once one of the most powerful men in government, was escorted by federal marshals out a side door in a federal courtroom here Thursday for processing after a judge issued a final ruling that he would have to begin serving his 30-month prison sentence shortly, even before his appeals were exhausted.
Mr. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was temporarily released after surrendering his passport and completing forms. He will have to report to a federal prison sometime in the next several weeks to begin serving his sentence after his conviction in March on four felony counts for lying in a C.I.A. leak investigation that became part of an intense debate over the war in Iraq.
In effect, the ruling means that the only thing standing between Mr. Libby and prison is a pardon from President Bush, which Mr. Libby and his supporters are avidly seeking. But Mr. Bush has so far shown no inclination to intervene. In answer to a question about a pardon, Tony Snow, the presidential spokesman, said Thursday: "What the president has said is let the legal process work itself out. We're just not engaging in that right now."
Judge Reggie B. Walton, who presided over the trial, sentenced Mr. Libby last week to the 30 months in prison and a $250,000 fine. On Thursday, Judge Walton affirmed his separate earlier decision that Mr. Libby should not be allowed to remain free until his appeals were exhausted.
The final decision led to the stark spectacle of Mr. Libby's leaving the courtroom for the first time not through the public entrance as he had done dozens of times in the past, but escorted in the fashion of a convict out a private door by grim-faced marshals.
Under federal procedures, the Bureau of Prisons is supposed to review Mr. Libby's case and determine a location for him. Because federal prisoners are supposed to be placed near their homes if possible, Mr. Libby might be sent to a minimum-security prison camp in Maryland, Virginia or New Jersey.
Judge Walton said there was no reason for Mr. Libby to remain free because none of the issues his lawyers was raising seemed likely to prevail on appeal. His ruling Thursday was not a surprise as he was being asked by Mr. Libby's lawyers to reverse his earlier judgment.
Mr. Libby's lawyers argued Thursday that his conviction might be overturned by an appeals court on several grounds, the most notable of which was their contention that the prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, had been appointed in violation of the Constitution.
That argument, made by Lawrence S. Robbins, was that Mr. Fitzgerald, the chief federal prosecutor in Chicago, was given too much power and was not, as the Constitution requires, subject to the authority of someone like the attorney general. But Judge Walton said Mr. Fitzgerald could have been dismissed as special prosecutor had Justice Department officials chosen to do so.
Judge Walton was especially acid when Mr. Robbins noted that 12 law professors including Alan Dershowitz of Harvard submitted a brief arguing that Mr. Libby be kept out of prison because his grounds for appeal might be accepted by a higher court. The judge said that the brief was not even as good "as I would expect from a first-year law student," and that the academics just wanted to put their names forward in a high-profile case.
The judge's decision puts the issue of any pardon squarely before Mr. Bush in the next few weeks. Mr. Libby's supporters had hoped that he could remain free while his case was appealed and that Mr. Bush might find it more palatable to issue a pardon later in his term, even just before he left office.
Mr. Libby was convicted of obstructing justice and lying to a grand jury and F.B.I. agents who were investigating the disclosure of the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency operative, Valerie Wilson.
Mr. Libby was not charged in connection with leaking Ms. Wilson's name, but he was indicted and convicted for lying about his conversations with reporters about her. Since his conviction, the issue of a pardon has produced vehement debate.
Democratic leaders in Congress have said that any pardon would be improper and a display of favoritism. The discussion among Republicans has been occasionally vitriolic, demonstrating the vexing political situation the Libby conviction has thrown up for Mr. Bush.
Republican presidential candidates have also been confronted with the issue, with former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee expressing the clearest support for a pardon. Many Libby supporters have argued that Mr. Bush's reluctance to support a former member of his foreign policy team borders on the dishonorable.
Judge Walton said in court on Thursday that he wanted to put on the record that he had received seriously threatening letters, which he implied were from people attacking him for not giving leniency to Mr. Libby.
If Mr. Libby goes to prison, he will be the first senior White House official to do so since the days of Watergate, when several of President Richard M. Nixon's top aides, including H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, served prison terms.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company