Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts set a clear definition of that term and how it can be used in corruption convictions.
“In sum, an ‘official act’ is a decision or action on a ‘question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” Roberts wrote. “Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of an official act.”
He later added, “There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” Roberts wrote. “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 impact should extend far beyond McDonnell’s conviction, said Steve Vladeck, CNN contributor and professor of law at American University Washington College of Law.
“Today’s ruling should clarify — and dramatically narrow –the scope of federal anti-corruption law, and could open the door to challenges from a number of other former public officials convicted under these federal laws, including Governor McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, and others.”
Roberts himself seemed to acknowledge how the case is being closely watched by politicians, those who seek to influence them and other politicians also serving prison time for their own convictions.
The government argued that McDonnell received loans, deluxe shopping trips and golf outings and in return used the power of his office to help Williams’ company.
McDonnell — who attended oral arguments with his wife Maureen — asked the Supreme Court to reverse his conviction. In 2015, he had been on the verge of reporting to prison for his two-year sentence when the court allowed him to stay out of jail pending his appeal.
McDonnell’s lawyers argued that his actions were limited to routine political courtesies and he never put his thumb on a scale by exercising government power on Williams’ behalf.
The case centered around the question of what constitutes the scope of an “official action” under federal corruption law — and at oral arguments, several justices searched for the proper line to draw between the regular activities of a politician and actions that could violate corruption laws.
Public officials, as well as those who appear before them have been carefully watching the case to see the boundaries they face when interacting with constituents, donors and business leaders.
Noel Francisco, a lawyer for McDonnell, argued that the lower courts stretched “corruption laws beyond recognition.”
“This case marks the first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision,” Francisco argued in court papers. Francisco told the justices that in order someone to violate the law, they would need to either make a decision on behalf of the government or try to use his influence to pressure another person with governmental power to make a decision on an action.
He said that the government’s position in the case puts “every federal, state and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs.”
At oral arguments, justices also questioned the scope of federal laws prosecutors used to convict McDonnell and struggled with where the line is between routine political action and the “official act” that would trigger corruption statutes.
Roberts pointed out that former White House counsels on both sides of the aisle argued in a brief that if the lower court decision is upheld it would, “cripple the ability of elected officials to fulfill their role in a representative democracy.”
The skepticism cut across the bench, with more liberal Justice Stephen Breyer being the most vigorous questioner of the government and expressing concern that the Justice Department could wield “enormous power” and that prosecutors could be “overly zealous.” He also repeatedly stressed concern that such laws could put at risk “behavior that is common.”