Home Politicians Breaking: Unanimous #SCOTUS Vacates and Remands McDonnell Decision

Breaking: Unanimous #SCOTUS Vacates and Remands McDonnell Decision


From SCOTUSblog: “Decision of the Fourth Circuit is vacated and remanded. Unanimous Court…Holding: An official act in the statutes at issue is a decision or action on a question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy…That question or matter must involve a formal exercise of governmental power and must also be something specific and focused — that is, pending or may by law be brought before a public official…To qualify as an official act, the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so…Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event, without more, does not meet that definition of official act…Given the court’s interpretation of official act, the district court’s jury instructions were erroneous, and the jury may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful. Because the errors in the jury instructions are not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the Court vacates Governor McDonnell’s convictions…’In addition to being inconsistent with both text and precedent, the Government’s expansive interpretation of “official act” would raise significant constitutional concerns.’…Very favorable to the governor but not over.”

You can read the entire opinion here. The key paragraph: “Taking into account the text of the statute, the precedent of this Court, and the constitutional concerns raised
by Governor McDonnell, we reject the Government’s reading of §201(a)(3) and adopt a more bounded interpretation of ‘official act.’ Under that interpretation, setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an ‘official act.'”

The conclusion: “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. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless
interpretation of the federal bribery statute. A more limited interpretation of the term “official act” leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

P.S. I wrote about my views on this case here. In short, I completely agree with the views of Randall Eliason (Professorial Lecturer in Law, George Washington University Law School; former Chief of the Public Corruption/Government Fraud, D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office), who said, “I don’t think James Madison thought that the Bill of Rights was protecting the right of someone to give a politician a Rolex or take his wife on a $10,000 shopping spree in exchange for political favors.” Also, in Elisason’s view, it’s a “great mystery” why the Supreme Court even took this case, that “there wasn’t really a Circuit split that they needed to resolve,” and that “the implications for the future are all going to depend on the details.”

I’d also note that given the incredibly high bar the SCOTUS just set for corrupt acts, I find it hard to see how McDonnell might be re-convicted in a new trial.

  • From ProgressVA:

    Statement: SCOTUS Prolongs McDonnell Saga

    The United States Supreme Court vacated former Governor Bob McDonnell’s corruption conviction this morning, prolonging the years-long saga over McDonnell’s inappropriate relationship with Star Scientific businessman Jonnie Williams. The decision could result in a retrial. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the unanimous decision. McDonnell, who accepted over $150,000 in gifts and loans from Williams, leveraged the power of his public office for private gain, but has argued his actions were simply business as usual.

    “Thanks to today’s decision, Virginians will have to continue waiting for justice for Bob McDonnell’s violation of the public trust,” said Progress Virginia executive director Anna Scholl. “Politicians like Bob McDonnell who take advantage of their public office for private gain deserve the severest of sanctions for violating our trust and disgracing their office. This decision should spur Virginia lawmakers to finally take ethics reform seriously. For far too long, they’ve tried to sell Virginia families sham reforms dressed up as the real thing. It’s shameful the Commonwealth has had to rely on federal prosecutors to keep our politicians honest and clean up their mess. It’s far past time for the General Assembly to take ethics and accountability seriously and put in place reforms that include real gift limits that close loopholes, an ethics council with the ability to investigate complaints and alleged violations, and true penalties to hold accountable those who would violate the public trust.”

    Since McDonnell’s corruption scandal came to light, the General Assembly has passed toothless ethics reform bills riddled with loopholes. Research conducted by Progress Virginia Education Fund found 79% of gifts reported by legislators in 2014 would still be allowed under the ethics law passed in 2015, including 70% of gifts from lobbyists and principals. More recently, the commonwealth’s ethics council raised issues showing gifts prohibited from lobbyist could simply still be funneled through their PACs.

    • Jim B

      Since the ethic laws are so weak the only way forward is to elect honest politicians. As far as I am concerned we should not elect right wing politicians. They are most likely to be liars and on the take.

      • Stephen Spiker

        If only you had waited more than a week since a Democratic Congressman was indicted and resigned over corruption and fraud charges.

        Both parties have corrupt individuals.

        • Yes, which is why we need much stronger ethics laws — with teeth.

          • Jim B

            I suppose there is some magic ratio where one corrupt democrat equals a multitude of corrupt republicans.

  • Sen. Mark Warner: “Today the Supreme Court sent a clear message that all women have the right to make their own reproductive health decisions, no matter where they live. This is a victory for women’s health in Texas, in Virginia, and across the country.”

  • Rep. Don Beyer statement:

    “Common sense and justice for women and families prevailed at the Supreme Court today,” said Rep. Don Beyer. “This decision once again affirms our nation’s longstanding policy that women have the right to an abortion until viability, and that efforts by anti-choice forces to deny that right through lack of access imposes an undue burden. Anti-choice forces in Virginia apply the same tactics, and have also failed. We will continue every effort to maintain and expand women’s healthcare access in Virginia.”

  • Video: Bob McDonnell and Donald Trump sing each others’ praises


  • John Farrell

    After reading the opinion, a retrial seems a certainty.