Supreme Court May Use the Bob McDonnell Case to Limit Federal Corruption Laws

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. As regular Sidebars readers know, I’ve followed the case closely, and I was at the Court to hear the arguments. Although it’s always risky to predict results based on the questions from the Justices, it appears that McDonnell and his attorneys have reason to feel pretty optimistic.

One reason they have for optimism is the fact that the Court agreed to hear the case at all; there was no obvious reason to do so. There was no circuit split in the lower courts that the Justices needed to resolve. A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld McDonnell’s convictions, and all the judges of that court had unanimously declined to rehear the case.

But the Supreme Court not only took the case, it took the unusual step of allowing McDonnell to remain free on bond while the case was pending. And during oral argument yesterday it became clear the Court has some deep reservations about the potential breadth of federal bribery laws.

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McDonnell and his attorneys outside the Supreme Court after the arguments

The Supreme Court Arguments 

McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in September 2014 of multiple counts of federal corruption. Over a two-year period they received a series of extravagant gifts and loans worth more than $175,000 from businessman Jonnie Williams. The government charged that, in exchange, the McDonnells agreed to promote Williams’ dietary supplement, Anatabloc, within the Virginia government. (For more detail about the case and my analysis of the charges, you can read some of my earlier posts here and here.)

At the Supreme Court Noel Francisco, arguing for McDonnell, focused on what has been the defense’s primary theme throughout the case: whatever McDonnell may have done for Williams, it did not amount to “official action” for purposes of federal bribery law. He said the government proved only that McDonnell did things such as introduce Williams to other state officials or urge others within the government to meet with Williams to discuss possible research studies. Such steps, he argued, cannot constitute official action unless there is evidence that the governor also tried to influence the outcome of any subsequent meeting.

The distinction, Francisco urged, is between actually making or influencing a government decision and simply providing access to those who might do so. McDonnell, he argued, did only the latter. He said the government’s theory made it possible for politicians to be prosecuted for extending simple political courtesies to a supporter, even if they never tried to exercise actual government power or influence any government decision on that supporter’s behalf.

Some potential cracks did appear in Francisco’s argument during questioning from the Court. Chief Justice Roberts asked about a government employee who worked as a scheduler, whose job it was to arrange meetings with the governor. For that individual, he said, arranging a meeting, “I suppose, would be an official act.” Francisco initially agreed that was possible.

That quickly got him in trouble, however, because it seemed inconsistent with the governor’s claim that simply arranging a meeting can never, by definition, be a official action. Justice Kagan immediately started to probe this point with some follow-up questions, and Francisco quickly backed away from his initial concession. He said although other laws might prohibit the scheduler from taking payments for arranging meetings, it would not violate the bribery laws.

This was actually one of Francisco’s stronger points, which he made several times. Federal bribery law, he argued, is not meant to be a comprehensive ethical code that covers all misconduct. Even if bribery is interpreted more narrowly, as McDonnell urges, that would not necessarily immunize all kinds of misbehavior. There are other laws on the books, as well as personnel regulations and other potential sanctions, that may apply. But bribery law itself, he urged, needs to be more narrowly construed in order to avoid potentially criminalizing a great deal of routine political behavior.

The really tough questioning was reserved for Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, arguing for the government. Dreeben began by trying to focus the Court on the implications of McDonnell’s position. Arranging access or setting up a meeting can absolutely be official action, he argued. Otherwise a governor could set up a “pay to play” system through which he routinely demanded that people pay him in exchange for his agreement to arrange a meeting with other state officials: if you don’t pay, you don’t get the meeting. That seems to be the essence of what the bribery laws prohibit.

Dreeben argued that the implications of a ruling for McDonnell would be staggering. The Court would be saying it is acceptable for officials to sell access to government actors to the highest bidder. He argued that official action encompasses anything ordinarily done in the course of a public official’s duties, including arranging meetings and access. There is no legal basis for the carve-out that McDonnell is seeking for actions that didn’t actually influence the exercise of some government power. To hold otherwise, he argued, would be to create a “recipe for corruption.”

But for the most part, the Court didn’t seem to be buying it. The Justices, of course, have to think not only about the case before them but also about the implications for future cases of any opinion that they write. And several seemed troubled by the implications of the government’s argument that even something as routine as arranging a meeting or writing a letter could potentially support a bribery prosecution.

Justice Breyer in particular seemed very concerned about finding a limiting principle to further define federal bribery. He argued that if the legal standards are too broad it implicates the separation of powers by giving the executive branch, in the form of prosecutors, too much power to dictate the actions of legislative branch officials. He pressed both sides to help the Court find the words to craft the appropriate legal standard.

A great deal of time was spent on hypotheticals. Justice Breyer wondered whether it would be a felony if a constituent took a politician to lunch and bought an expensive bottle of wine, and after lunch the politician wrote a letter to a government agency urging it to act on a matter of interest to that constituent. Chief Justice Roberts imagined a case where a businessman takes a governor for an afternoon of trout fishing, and they discuss whether the business could get tax credits within the state. Is that a felony, he asked? Justice Kennedy asked whether it was a felony for the President to provide access to high-dollar donors.

Dreeben responded by arguing that “official action” is only one aspect of the crime and that the question of official action does not have to carry all of the weight in a bribery case. The prosecution would still have to prove a corrupt quid pro quo, a direct agreement to take the official action in exchange for the particular thing of value. In effect, he said, you have to look at the whole picture, not just the official action side of the equation: “you need to run this through all the elements of the offense.”

Looking at the whole picture, Dreeben also noted, shows why a case involving campaign contributions or routine political support would be very different from the McDonnell case. The Court’s prior decisions make clear that it is not enough simply to show a politician took actions that were desired by someone who contributed to her campaign. Given the nature of the quid, a much stronger direct quid pro quo would need to be shown. But the McDonnell case does not involve campaign contributions, and so those concerns are not implicated.

Corruption, Dreeben concluded, has to include a situation such as this, where a governor calls his Secretary of Health and says “take a meeting with my benefactor.” That means the person who paid the governor “will have the preferential opportunity that other citizens who do not pay will not have” to make their case before the Secretary. That kind of pay to play access is the essence of corruption and should be prohibited. The purpose of bribery law is to ensure that government officials act equally for the benefit of all, and not secretly to benefit those who are paying them off.

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White Collar Crime and Prosecutorial Discretion: The Inherent Tension

As I noted, it’s always risky to try to predict outcomes based on the Court’s questioning. But Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben didn’t seem to be getting a lot of love from the bench. Only Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg seemed to be potentially in his camp. To varying degrees, all of the other Justices who asked questions seemed quite skeptical of the government’s position.

McDonnell’s case may be the latest example of the Supreme Court’s increasing discomfort with a common feature of white collar crime: broadly written laws that then rely on prosecutorial discretion to determine which cases to bring. White collar statutes tend to use expansive language in order to avoid creating loopholes or safe harbors for criminal activity. But as a result, it is often relatively easy to come up with a parade of horribles about hypothetical cases that might fall within the statute.

For example, six years ago in Skilling v. United States the Supreme Court ruled that the crime of honest services fraud should be narrowed to apply to only bribery and kickback cases. I remember during the Skilling arguments Justice Breyer (also the most vocal questioner in the McDonnell argument) expressing incredulity that an employee who called in sick to go to the ballgame could potentially be found guilty of honest services fraud. By limiting honest services fraud to bribes and kickbacks, Skilling excused the truant employee example.

But in fact Skilling did not solve Justice Breyer’s problem. An employee who uses the phone to call in sick to go to the ball game technically commits plain old federal wire fraud – there is no need to rely on honest services fraud. The employee is using the interstate wires to further a scheme to defraud his employer out of his salary. We don’t see such trivial cases clogging the federal courts because thankfully prosecutors exercise their discretion not to bring them – but legally, all of the elements of the offense are met.

Similarly, every witness interviewed by the FBI who lies about a material fact, no matter how trivial, meets the elements of the federal false statements statute. But only a relative handful of such cases end up being prosecuted, most often when there is other criminal conduct involved. If prosecutors actually brought charges every time someone lies to the FBI, they would have time to do little else.

It is similarly easy, as the Court demonstrated during the McDonnell arguments, to come up with hypothetical trivial cases that would violate the bribery laws. If I make an explicit deal with my Senator that if I buy him lunch he will write a letter to another federal agency on my behalf, then technically, yes, that meets the elements of the bribery statute. You don’t see such cases being brought because a) they probably almost never happen; and b) prosecutors recognize they are trivial and prosecuting would not be an appropriate exercise of their discretion.

Again, this breadth is a characteristic of many white collar criminal statutes. And although this did not come up explicitly during the McDonnell arguments, the government’s response to the hypothetical trivial cases effectively has to be, “Yes, that technically violates the statute, but we’d never bring such a case. Trust us.” That’s not a very satisfying answer to many on the Court these days.

This concern about the breadth of many statutes is also a component of the growing concerns these days about over-criminalization. Many are troubled by the fact that so much trivial conduct is potentially covered by federal criminal laws – even though the trivial cases usually do not end up being prosecuted.

But this system, of course, depends on prosecutors doing a good job of exercising their discretion. The Justices may feel an increasing need to limit the scope of some federal criminal statutes in light of their concerns about prosecutors’ charging practices in recent cases. For example, last year in Yates v. United States, prosecutors’ decision to charge a fishing captain with the twenty-year felony for throwing undersized fish overboard arguably led the Court to adopt an artificially narrow reading of a federal obstruction of justice statute. The year before that, in Bond v. United States, the Court expressed great concern over the government’s decision to use a statute prohibiting the use of chemical weapons to charge a jilted wife who sprinkled some caustic chemicals on a doorknob to try to harm her husband’s lover, resulting in only a minor skin irritation.

The Court may conclude that drawing some more limited statutory parameters is particularly appropriate when it comes to public corruption. As Justice Breyer emphasized, there are special separation of powers concerns at work in such cases. The fear is that if corruption laws are too sweeping, unscrupulous prosecutors might use them to take down political opponents.

The alternative to a system of broad statutes coupled with reliance on prosecutorial discretion is one of narrower laws that necessarily leave some loopholes and are easier to circumvent. During the McDonnell arguments, Justice Breyer, for one, seemed perfectly prepared to accept that. He noted that whatever standard the Court announces for “official action” will not be perfect and “will leave some dishonest conduct unprosecuted.” But that may be necessary, he argued, in order to avoid the separation of powers problems that result from the alternative of giving the prosecutor too much power to decide which conduct to punish.

Congress historically has chosen to draft deliberately broad corruption statutes to avoid making the laws easier to evade. As Dreeben noted, for decades those corruption laws have functioned reasonably well. Although no system is perfect, prosecutions involving routine political courtesies and campaign contributions are rare to non-existent – and McDonnell certainly is not such a case. The hypotheticals imagined by the Court are just that. They do not reflect the real world of federal corruption prosecutions, any more than imagined stories of Nationals fans indicted for calling in sick describe the real world of wire fraud.

The question now is whether the Court will nevertheless feel compelled once again to restrict the scope of federal criminal law, even if that means effectively creating a safe harbor for certain kinds of corruption. The impact on both pending and future prosecutions of public corruption could be dramatic.

A decision is expected by this June; Sidebars will keep you posted.

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