Explainer: US Supreme Court Prepares for Oral Arguments in Local Corruption Case Features
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Explainer: US Supreme Court Prepares for Oral Arguments in Local Corruption Case

The US Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday in Snyder v. United States, a case involving illegal gratuities paid to a local government official. The issue is whether the federal government can use 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(B)—known as federal funds bribery—to prosecute those who give and take illegal gratuities or whether the statute only covers bribes. At stake is the federal government’s power to promote the rule of law by combatting corruption at the state and local levels and how it uses that power.

In this explainer, we describe the broader implications of the case, the events that brought Snyder into court, and the key arguments on both sides.

Why is this case important?

From a mayor asking a company for a job after buying a truck from that same company, to a state senator handing out state funds in exchange for campaign contributions, there are various forms of corruption within state and local governments that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has used Section 666 to prosecute. Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds flow to states and localities every year, and Congress does not want those funds to be diverted or tainted by corrupt officials. It therefore enacted Section 666 in 1984 to enable prosecutors to pursue state and local corruption, with at least some success: Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that the DOJ has relied on the statute in thousands of cases over the last 30 years.

But this case also fits into a broader trend. Over the last 15 years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the government’s attempts to construe criminal fraud and corruption statutes broadly without clear authorization from Congress. It may do the same here.

In 2010, the court in Skilling restricted the definition of “honest services fraud” to taking bribes and kickbacks. Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling had been convicted of defrauding investors to increase the value of his stocks, but the high court held that the statute’s text was not clear enough to cover such conduct.

In 2016, the court in McDonnell restricted the definition of “official act” under 18 U.S.C. § 201—the statute for bribes and illegal gratuities paid to federal officials—to (agreeing to) decisions and actions on official matters. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell had been convicted of accepting gifts and loans in exchange for his influence, which included arranging meetings with officials. But the Supreme Court held that arranging meetings, by itself, does not amount to an official act.

And in 2023, the court in Percoco and Ciminelli cut back on two theories that the government had long used to prosecute state and local officials for corruption under the statutes for honest services fraud and wire fraud. Against that backdrop, Judge Pamela Chen of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York in September 2023 vacated multiple convictions in the FIFA corruption probe. Mindful of the Supreme Court’s narrowing tendency, she refused to extend honest services fraud to include commercial bribery fully taking place abroad.

What distinguishes an illegal gratuity from a bribe?

A bribe involves a quid pro quo agreement: a person agrees to give a public official something of value in exchange for a promise to perform an official act. Most statutes do not define what “something of value” is, but the DOJ has said that it can take many forms— including cash, travel expenses, expensive gifts, and charitable contributions.

A gratuity does not involve such an agreement: a person simply gives something of value to a public official to thank them for official acts they have already taken or committed to take. A gratuity is illegal when the giver or taker acts corruptly in offering or asking for one in relation to the official act. What corruptly means is disputed. Snyder argues that it means “deliberately and wrongfully agreeing to a quid pro quo,” whereas the government argues that it means “consciousness of wrongdoing.”

What happened in this case?

Snyder is a former mayor of Portage, Indiana. After taking office, he set about fulfilling his campaign promise to improve trash collection by buying new garbage trucks. However, he tweaked the public bidding process so that a local company, Great Lakes Peterbilt, was the only serious contender. The city paid $1.1 million for the company’s garbage trucks. Witnesses testified that the company profited $20,000 to $30,000 and that the city could have saved $60,000 with a regular bidding process.

Snyder, who had tax debts and earned a moderate salary as mayor, then asked the company for a part-time job with a $15,000 salary. The company agreed to pay him $13,000 upfront. People involved told different stories about the intentions behind this arrangement. Snyder claimed he provided consulting services, but one of the company’s owners said that the payment was really for his influence in office.

Snyder was convicted of soliciting and accepting an illegal gratuity under Section 666(a)(1)(B) and sentenced to 21 months in prison. The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed his conviction, holding that the statute “easily reaches both bribes and gratuities” because it punishes public officials who intend to be rewarded as well as influenced.

Why is Snyder appealing his conviction?

According to Snyder, Section 666 does not apply to illegal gratuities. He relies on the text, history, and structure of the statute in his argument.

Snyder makes two textual claims in support of his position. He asserts that the statute follows a quid pro quo structure and therefore only applies to bribes by design. The word “rewarded” does not change his interpretation. He illustrates his argument with the idea of a lost dog reward: while the payment is made after the pet is returned, there is a prior agreement to pay the reward on return. Snyder also makes the point that rewarded and influenced mean the same thing—exchanging government conduct for private gain. He adds that Congress commonly uses synonyms to close gaps in statutes, so different words do not necessarily expand their scope.

Snyder’s historical argument is that Section 666 initially copied the language “for or because of [an official act]” from Section 201(c), which prohibits illegal gratuities paid to federal officials, but he notes that Congress removed that text two years later and replaced it with “corruptly intending to be influenced or rewarded.” He claims that the old text covered gratuities, but the new text does not.

His structural point is that Section 666’s title mentions theft and bribery and that subsections (a)(1)(A) and (a)(1)(B) apply to theft and bribery respectively. Gratuities do not show up anywhere, he observes.

What is the federal government’s position?

The federal government contends that Section 666 does extend to illegal gratuities. It counters each of Snyder’s arguments.

The government’s main textual claim is that the word “rewarded” refers to gratuities. According to the government, rewards do not require a “prior meeting of the minds.” Its counter-example to Snyder’s lost dog reward analogy is that of a lost-wallet reward: a person can receive a reward for returning a wallet without any prior agreement. Another textual point the government makes is that “influenced or rewarded” do mean two different things: bribe agreements before an official act and gratuities paid after an official act. The government asserts that there were no gaps to fill in this statute—it captures all forms of bribes, even without the word “rewarded.”

The government’s historical point is that Congress amended Section 666 around the same time as 18 U.S.C. § 215, which has the same language and similarly aims to punish illegal gratuities.

The government’s structural argument is that Section 201’s title does not mention gratuities either, but indisputably covers them.

What have others said about the case?

All amici curiae are on Snyder’s side. Meaning “friends of the court,” amici curiae are typically organizations that are not parties to the dispute, but the court has permitted them to file briefs in support of one party. They usually set forth legal arguments, policy concerns, or both.

The James Madison Center for Free Speech raises a federalism concern. It claims that the government disturbs the balance between federal and state power when it uses statutes to prosecute crimes that are better enforced by state and local prosecutors. The center also warns of selective enforcement: because Section 666 applies to so many state and local officials, the federal government will be inclined to prosecute officials it does not like. In addition, the Separation of Powers Clinic of the Antonin Scalia Law School argues that prosecuting gratuities is the easy way out for the government, as the court has made it more difficult to prosecute bribery.

The government responds that those concerns are misguided because Section 666 has various restrictions on its scope so that any intrusion on state power is limited. It also argues that the statute protects local governments against losing money to officials who enrich themselves. Lastly, the government notes that givers and takers of innocent gifts are not at risk because the statute has a minimum threshold of $5,000 and the gift must be given or taken corruptly.

Oral arguments in Snyder v. United States are set to commence Monday at 10:00 AM EDT.