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Supreme Court hears arguments in Conrad Black fraud appeal

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; merit briefs] Tuesday in two cases related to "honest services" fraud. In Black v. United States [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the Court heard arguments on the appeal of Canadian-born former media mogul Conrad Black [CBC profile; JURIST news archive]. The Court is considering whether the honest services clause of 18 USC § 1346 [text] applies in cases where there is no finding that the defendant or defendants "reasonably contemplated identifiable economic harm" in cases of mail and wire fraud under § 1341 [text]. In 2007, Black was convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice and sentenced [JURIST reports] to 78 months in prison. The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] Black's appeal, holding that § 1346 may be applied in a private setting regardless of whether the defendant's conduct risked any foreseeable economic harm to the victim. Counsel for the petitioners argued that § 1346 "is vague, amorphous, open-ended, and essentially, not very helpful," and that "all convictions in this case must be reversed." Counsel for the United States responded that petitioners had not previously raised the question of whether the statute is unconstitutionally vague, so the Court should not rule on that issue.

In Weyhrauch v. United States [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the Court heard arguments on whether a federal honest services mail fraud prosecution under 18 USC §§ 1341 and 1346 requires proof that the conduct at issue also violated an applicable state law. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held [opinion, PDF] that no state law violation is required. The case involves former Alaska state representative Bruce Weyhrauch and whether he should have disclosed that he was seeking legal work from oil company Veco Corp. while he was voting on an oil tax. Counsel for the petitioner argued that § 1346 does not impose a legal duty to disclose a potential conflict of interest. Counsel for the United States argued "that when the legislator takes official action having an undisclosed conflict of interest, that's when he violates the honest services statute under the non-disclosure theory."

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