McDonnell Decision: Legal Consequences

Jun 27, 2016

The Supreme Court decision today overturning the corruption case against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell could have far-reaching legal consequences.

Reading his opinion from the bench today, Chief Justice John Roberts said the court has to look past the tawdry nature of the Rolex watch and the designer clothing a wealthy businessman used in an effort to buy power and influence. Instead, Roberts says, justices need to focus on whether McDonnell carried out any official act. In doing so, the court has now drawn a much more narrow definition of what it means for an elected official to conduct an official act.

The Supreme Court Building.
Credit The Associated Press

“It could make it more difficult for the government to bring those kinds of prosecutions in the future."

That’s Carl Tobias at the University of Richmond Law School.

“The court doesn’t necessarily think so because it says more limited interpretation of official act leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption."

White collar defense attorney Michael Levy says the new boundary leaves open some kind of relationship between money and power.

“There is a constitutionally accepted role of money in politics today. And what the court has said is just because there is money and there is politics doesn’t necessarily mean there’s necessarily corruption."

The case will now go back to the appeals court, which will decide whether prosecutors can bring another case against McDonnell under the more narrow reading of official act.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell will start his day tomorrow as a free man, now that the United States Supreme Court has overturned his 2014 conviction for bribery and corruption. And the court’s decision could have far-reaching consequences.

The case against Bob McDonnell wasn’t just a soap opera about a wealthy businessman buying the wife of a governor designer clothing to get his way. Justices of the Supreme Court say it was also about overzealous prosecutors who were wrong to conclude official acts included things like setting up a meeting or hosting an event at the Executive Mansion.

Bob McDonnell stands outside of the Supreme Court Building shortly after SCOTUS overturned his corruption conviction on June 27th, 2016.
Credit The Associated Press

“That clears the law up for federal prosecutors as well as politicians, and that’s the critical piece of this case."

That’s Virginia legal expert Rich Kelsey, who says the court’s more narrow definition of official act requires a higher level of proof for a specific action.

“An official action, which causes some decision maker to make a decision they would not have otherwise made but for the quid pro quo."

White collar defense attorney Michael Levy says the court wanted to make sure that elected officials could be responsive to constituents — and even wealthy benefactors — without crossing a line into corruption. 

“The Supreme Court unanimously tried to draw that line in a way that would allow true corruption to be prosecuted without interfering with basic representative democracy."

Justice Antonin Scalia might not have been on the court for the ruling, but his spirit was. Justices relied on his opinion in a previous case to guide the decision in the McDonnell case.