The Supreme Court’s Faulty Logic

Has the U.S. Supreme Court ever heard of bribery?

We aren’t sure the eight remaining justices on the court know much about how government works after reading the court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States. The decision overturned the conviction of Bob McDonnell, the former Virginia governor who had been accused of accepting gifts, loans and vacations from Jonnie Williams, a businessman who wanted the governor’s help dealing with state officials to get a nutritional supplement Williams’ company was developing to be studied by Virginia’s public universities. Williams wanted McDonnell’s help getting those studies approved and showered McDonnell and his wife with gifts.

The Supreme Court decision holds that public officials must take an overt action to be convicted of public corruption. So, in the court’s view, prosecutors would have to prove McDonnell issued some sort of directive for the university system to study Williams’ nutritional supplement, told agencies to give Williams’ company grant money or aid or have sponsored changes to make sure the supplement in question was covered by the insurance used by Virginia state employees. Simply making a phone call or setting up a meeting for a friend does not, in the Supreme Court’s view, meet the definition of corrupt behavior.

What the court doesn’t take into account is the weight with which a phone call from a governor’s office – or the office of a certain Senate majority leader or Assembly speaker in New York state who have been convicted of corruption in the past year- carries. In 2016, a wink and a smile carry as much weight as a memo. Only in the warped view of the U.S. Supreme Court can something look like a duck, waddle like a duck and quack like a duck but be, by all legal definitions, a unicorn.

The court’s decision is unfortunate. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been a more effective guard against corruption in New York state than any other entity created over the past two decades. It would be unfortunate indeed if the McDonnell decision let more crooked New York lawmakers off the hook because Bharara is handcuffed by the Supreme Court’s faulty logic.


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