U.S. Supreme Court Holds Virginia Corruption Definition Unconstitutional

Posted by James Madison CenterJun 27, 20160 Comments

Monday, June 27, 2016

Contact: James Bopp, Jr.
Phone 812-232-2434; Fax 812-235-3685; [email protected]

 U.S. Supreme Court Holds Virginia Corruption Definition Unconstitutional

Today, the United States Supreme Court vacated a jury conviction against former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell for alleged corruption, finding that Virginia's definition of corruption was not a proper application of federal law and was unconstitutional. The James Madison Center for Free Speech filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court, urging the Court to reverse the conviction and to adopt a narrow definition of quid pro quo corruption to ensure campaign discourse remains free and unfettered.

            The case, McDonnell v. U.S., addresses whether two separate federal statutes—the Hobbs Act and the honest-services fraud statute—were violated when Governor McDonnell's wife received lawful gifts and loans in alleged exchange for arranging meetings, making inquiries, and granting access to events. Both statutes, which address bribery and fraud, turn on whether quid pro quo corruption occurred. This same criterion of quid pro quo corruption is used to justify campaign finance regulations.

            The Court held that Virginia's interpretation of quid pro quo corruption—“an exchange of a thing of value for an ‘official act'”—was vastly overbroad and vague, having the effect of making every contribution and lunch given to a public official a “quid” and every action that public official made a “quo.” Such an effect would “cast a pall of potential prosecution” over public officials' relationships with their constituents, said the Court, and might cause constituents to “shrink from participating in public discourse.” So the Court adopted a narrow definition of “official act” to only include “a formal exercise of governmental power,” such as a lawsuit, an agency determination, or a committee hearing. Moreover, a public official must know there is an expectation of an official act in return for a gift for quid pro quo to occur. Simply arranging meetings, making phone calls, and access to events are not “official acts,” the Court concluded.

            James Bopp, Jr., counsel for the Madison Center, is pleased with the decision: “The Court rightly recognized the First Amendment chill that would be cast over both constituent and campaign participation if the government can selectively enforce so broad a corruption definition against public officials and candidates associating with voters.  Limiting quid pro quo corruption to exchanges of money or other gifts for official acts ensures the government does not exceed its authority and unconstitutionally silence the speech of its citizens.”

            A copy of the Madison Center's amicus brief can be found here. The Court's decision can be found here.

James Bopp, Jr. has a national constitutional law practice with The Bopp Law Firm, PC.


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