Virginia governor’s conviction vacated by Supreme Court
Virginia governor’s conviction vacated by Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court [official website] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously in McDonnell v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials] that former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s conduct did not constitute an “official act” sufficient to support his corruption conviction. McDonnell was found guilty of official corruption in 2014 after accepting gifts and loans from the CEO of dietary supplement company Star Scientific in exchange for assisting the company in securing university testing of one of its products. He challenged his conviction on the grounds that none of his conduct, including arranging meetings for company officials and hosting company events at his official residence, met the definition of an “official act” under the bribery statute [18 U.S.C. § 201(a)(3) text] at issue. The Supreme Court agreed, rejecting the government’s broad interpretation of the term, and adopting “a more bounded interpretation.” With this interpretation in mind, the court found that McDonnell’s conviction had been based on erroneous jury instructions. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted the continued viability of the bribery statute despite a stricter reading of the term “official act.”

There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. 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 court remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals [official website] to determine whether there is sufficient evidence of an “official act” under the new interpretation to support a new trial.

In 2014 McDonnell and his wife Maureen were accused [USA Today report] of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, in exchange for favors for and promotions of the company. The McDonnells were found guilty of the 11 counts of corruption, and Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years and Maureen received a sentence of one year and one day. An attorney for Bob McDonnell said he would appeal [JURIST report] his public corruption convictions to the Supreme Court after the Fourth Circuit refused to reconsider the case. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in January and heard oral arguments [JURIST reports] in April.