There was no love for former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell personally at the Supreme Court today. His story was, according to Chief Justice John Roberts, a “tawdry” one “of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns.” But even though all eight Justices regarded McDonnell’s conduct (as well as that of his wife, Maureen) as “distasteful,” they could still agree on one thing: his conviction on federal corruption charges should be thrown out. The case now returns to the lower courts, where federal prosecutors could seek the authority to try him again.
McDonnell’s case has its roots in his relationship with a Virginia businessman, Jonnie Williams, who found himself in a quandary. Williams wanted the federal Food and Drug Administration to approve a nutritional supplement that his company produced, but it wouldn’t do so without testing, which the company could not afford. Enter McDonnell: Williams hoped that the then-governor would help him to convince state researchers to conduct the tests instead. Among other things, McDonnell set up meetings for Maureen McDonnell and Williams with state officials and hosted an event to promote the supplement at the governor’s mansion. During the same time period, Williams loaned the McDonnells over a hundred thousand dollars and gave them luxury goods worth tens of thousands of dollars more. When the loans and gifts came to the attention of federal prosecutors, they charged McDonnell with violating federal laws that make it a felony for a public official to agree to take an “official act” in exchange for money, campaign donations, or anything else of value.
After a five-week trial, a jury found McDonnell guilty, and he was sentenced to two years in prison; a federal appeals court affirmed his conviction.
Today the Supreme Court unanimously ruled for McDonnell. As the Court explained, the case against him boiled down to the meaning of the phrase “official act.” In the federal government’s view, which was applied in McDonnell’s trial, an “official act” can be almost anything that a public official does, including “arranging a meeting, contacting another public official, or hosting any event—without more—concerning any subject.”
But the Supreme Court read the term more narrowly. Under the federal law at issue in the case, the Court explained, a regular meeting, phone call, or event, standing alone, is not the kind of “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy” that the statute covers. The words “cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy,” the Court reasoned, generally involve an exercise of government power along the lines of a lawsuit or a committee hearing – which a meeting, phone call, or event would not implicate. And although in theory a “question” or “matter” could sweep more broadly, the Court continued, their inclusion in this list of words suggests that they were intended to be similar to a “cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy,” and therefore also would not extend to meetings, phone calls, or events.
Nor, the Court added, would a meeting, phone call, or event necessarily qualify as a “decision or action” on some other question or matter, such as the determination by state researchers to study the nutritional supplement or the allocation of grant money for such a study. Instead, it said, the public official herself would have to make, agree to make, or even pressure someone else to make, a decision on – for example — whether to begin the study or allocate the grant money. But just setting up a meeting to discuss the study, without more, isn’t a crime.
The Court pointed out that the government’s contrary position would place public officials in a real bind, because one of their major roles is to help their constituents, “whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm.” But what if those constituents had made campaign contributions or invited them to a baseball game? The government’s view, the Court suggested “could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships.”
The Court acknowledged that McDonnell’s case, with its private plane trips, golf outings, and shopping excursions in New York, was an outlier – hardly the “normal political interaction between public officials and their constituents.” But the problem, as the Court saw it, was that the federal government’s rule would not be “confined to cases involving extravagant gifts or large sums of money” and, as such, could create the opportunity for “overzealous” prosecutions.
Today’s decision does not end McDonnell’s case. Instead, the Court ruled that McDonnell’s convictions could not stand because the jury had received incorrect, and overly broad, instructions about what constitutes a “official act.” The trial court, the Court explained, “should have instructed the jury that merely arranging a meeting or hosting an event to discuss a matter does not count as a decision or action on that matter.” Because it did not, the jury could have convicted McDonnell for conduct that is not actually prohibited.
The Court left open the possibility, however, that federal prosecutors, consistent with today’s ruling, could bring new charges against him. Whether the court of appeals to which the case returns will permit them do so, and – if so – how McDonnell will fare remains to be seen. But today’s unanimous decision lends some clarity to the scope of federal corruption laws, and it is certainly a very welcome development for both McDonnell and his wife, whose own conviction was also on hold waiting for the Court’s decision.