Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously overturned the public corruption conviction of Virginia’s former governor, Robert F. McDonnell.
The action of the Court was not a surprise to many, if not most, legal experts who had viewed the instruction to the jury in the case as to what constitutes “official acts” as being so broad that they could cover most any action that a public official takes. At the same time, there is concern that the Court’s decision will make it much more difficult to prosecute public officials on corruption charges.
The case is not yet fully resolved. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Appeals Court to decide if there was sufficient evidence to hold a new trial or if the charges will be dismissed. In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling there is not likely to be a new trial, and the charges will be dropped.
The court of public opinion may offer a different verdict. Even in writing the decision of the total court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. stated that “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.”
The legal arguments may be lost on many in the general public who watched and listened during the weeks of the trial of McDonnell and his wife taking $175,000 in gifts and loans from a rich businessman who clearly sought their favor. It may not be illegal, but it clearly is “tawdry” as the Chief Justice stated and is for many inappropriate, sleazy, distasteful and beneath the expectations of his office.
The real damage to holding public officials accountable would come if the ruling results in prosecutors being unwilling to bring charges against those who are clearly involved in corruption. The court of public opinion can make its verdict known only to the degree that corrupt actions on the part of elected officials are made known.
The charges against McDonnell resulted in a multi-year effort on the part of the General Assembly to rewrite the state’s ethics laws. That task must be continued to ensure that elected officials and the public understand the rules of ethical behavior and that breaches of the rules are prosecuted.
The task is complicated, particularly for part-time legislators who spend most of their year in their home districts with numerous interactions with constituents. Legitimate constituent services must not be confused with payback. Nor should social interchanges with constituents be somehow discouraged.
Former Governor McDonnell has not escaped scrutiny or damage to his reputation. The court of public opinion will see to that as it should. As the Supreme Court’s verdict in his case shows, however, the lines have not been delineated with enough detail. Stronger and clearer ethical laws must be written and vigorously enforced.