Supreme Court justices on Wednesday seemed prepared to overturn the 2014 corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and perhaps make it harder for prosecutors to bring charges against politicians who provide favors for their benefactors.
Justices on both sides of the ideological divide expressed concern about federal corruption laws that could criminalize what they variously called “routine” or “everyday” actions that politicians perform for campaign contributors or supporters who have provided them with gifts.
“For better or for worse, it puts at risk behavior that is common,” said Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who along with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suggested that the federal corruption laws are so vague that they might be unconstitutional.
Justices are often bolder in their comments at oral arguments than in the eventual opinions they produce. But it seemed that almost any outcome of Wednesday’s one-hour oral argument would be beneficial for McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.
Besides suggesting the law might be unconstitutional, the justices questioned whether instructions given to the jury that convicted the McDonnells were proper and whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant the convictions.
Near the end of the argument, Justice Elena Kagan wondered whether narrowed charges against McDonnell might form a way to retry him.
The hearing on McDonnell was the court’s last oral argument of the term, so a decision in the case might not come until the court nears the completion of its work at the end of June.
The 2016 presidential campaign has featured an outpouring of protest by voters against “politics as usual.” But the justices had a different aim in mind — drawing a clear line that would keep overzealous prosecutors from converting common gestures of politicians into criminal acts. Roberts, for instance, mentioned a hypothetical example of a governor who goes trout fishing with the head of a company seeking tax incentives to relocate to that governor’s state. Breyer offered the example of an expensive bottle of wine bought at a lunch to thank an official for a courtesy.
I still think his conviction was shaky. No one disputes that McDonnell showed some bad judgement. However, bad judgement isn’t always illegal. McDonnell broke no Virginia laws and from what I gather, federal corruption laws are vague at best. He should not have to spend 2 years in prison for what he did.
If Bob McDonnell goes home and beats his wife, I will pretend I don’t know. Her behavior was far worse than his in the game of sleaze. However, she was not an elected official. He was.
The moral of this story is to not piss off your cook or if you do, make sure your own skillet is clean and above reproach.
Virginia still hasn’t tied up its loose ends with corruption laws. Shame on the General Assembly for not laying the correct groundwork. Our state will probably continue to have these embarrassing episodes until our lawmakers get serious about ethics and politics.