Unanimous Decision Reached in McDonnell Case

Today, the Supreme Court vacated former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s corruption convictions, which concerned various benefits that McDonnell and his family received from a Virginia businessman.  The question before the Court was whether actions such as arranging meetings, hosting and attending events, and contacting other officials to support the businessman’s product qualified as “official acts”—a requirement of the charges McDonnell faced.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.  The fact that it was unanimous is noteworthy; and as noted in earlier posts, the Courts' decisions in this area do not always breakdown on traditional ideological lines.  In sum, the Court held, an “official act” is a decision or action on a specific and focused issue that is pending or may be brought before the government and that involves a formal exercise of government power.  It is not enough to simply coordinate meetings or events or communicate with other officials about issues as broad as Virginia business and economic development.

The Chief’s opinion also declared that the “expansive interpretation” of “official act” advocated by the federal government “would raise significant constitutional concerns.”  In particular, “conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time.”  The federal government’s position, the Court said, “could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships” whenever the constituents had contributed to the official’s campaign or invited him or her to a ballgame.  As discussed in earlier posts, this case falls in line with recent Supreme Court decisions expressing concern about expansive federal power.

The Supreme Court thus concluded that the trial court allowed the jury to convict McDonnell for conduct that did not meet the proper interpretation of “official act.”  It “remanded”—or sent the case back—to the lower appellate court for further proceedings.  That court will determine whether the prosecution presented sufficient evidence to satisfy the “official act” standard as clarified by the Supreme Court.  If so, a new trial could ensue.  If not, the charges against McDonnell must be dismissed.

As the Supreme Court made clear, its opinion was not meant “to suggest that the facts of this case typify normal political interaction between public officials and their constituents.  Far from it.”  Instead, the Court saw this case as a troubling example of federal overreach.