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Justices Unanimously Reverse Ex-Virginia Governor’s Public Corruption Conviction

Justices Unanimously Reverse Ex-Virginia Governor’s Public Corruption Conviction

Bob McDonnell speaking at CPAC. February 19, 2010. (Photo: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.)


The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously reversed the public corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, narrowing the scope of official conduct that can land politicians in trouble under federal bribery law.

McDonnell, once a rising star among Republican officeholders, was sentenced in 2014 to two years in prison on charges he took “official acts” in exchange for more than $175,000 in gifts and cash from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. McDonnell was accused of using his office to promote Williams’ company.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the court, said the justices were adopting a more “bounded interpretation” of “official acts” than what prosecutors had advocated. The court sent the case back to the trial judge to decide whether there was enough evidence that McDonnell’s conduct fell under the new definition of “official acts.” If so, the judge could order a new trial. If not, the charges will be dismissed.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns,” Roberts wrote. “It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”

Noel Francisco of Jones Day argued in the high court that McDonnell’s actions were “routine political courtesies” such as suggesting meetings or attending events. The justices agreed, writing that those types of actions, “standing alone,” did not qualify as an official act.

The government’s interpretation of official acts was overbroad, the court said.

“Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse,” Roberts wrote.

McDonnell also claimed the trial judge inadequately screened potential jurors for bias caused by massive pretrial publicity. But the Supreme Court did not take up that issue.

A federal district court judge upheld the sentence, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed in July 2015, finding that McDonnell’s actions fit within the scope of relevant bribery statutes. The high court gave McDonnell a boost in August when it stayed the start of his prison sentence pending his petition for certiorari.

During oral arguments in April, it appeared a majority of the court was concerned an overly broad definition of “official acts” would leave government officials fearful that commonplace interactions with the public would put them in legal jeopardy.

“My goodness,” Justice Stephen Breyer said at one point as he questioned Francisco. “Letters go by the dozens over to the secretary of HUD, to the secretary of HHS … and they say, ‘My constituent Smith has a matter before you that has been pending for 180 months; we would appreciate it if you would review that and take action’ … A crime? My goodness.”

Roberts referred during the argument to a brief filed on behalf of former attorneys general and White House counsels. “They say, quoting their brief, that ‘if this decision is upheld, it will cripple the ability of elected officials to fulfill their role in our representative democracy,’” Roberts said. “Now, I think it’s extraordinary that those people agree on anything. But to agree on something as sensitive as this and to be willing to put their names on something that says this—this cannot be prosecuted conduct. I think is extraordinary.”

Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben defended the government’s reading of the elements of bribery. “Getting in the door, Mr. Chief Justice, is one of the absolutely critical things,” adding that “taking a meeting is absolutely government action.”


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