The Corner

Supreme Court: Hey, Maybe Bribery Laws Are Just Too Vague!

The Supreme Court heard arguments from Bob McDonnell’s lawyers that the bribery law he’s charged with violating is being too broadly defined, and they seem sympathetic to the idea that these darn laws against bribery are just too open-ended:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed ready to side with Bob McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia who was convicted of public corruption and faces two years in prison. Justices across the ideological spectrum said the laws under which he had been convicted gave prosecutors too much power to say that routine political favors amounted to corruption.

“It puts at risk behavior that is common,” said Justice Stephen G. Breyer. “That is a recipe for giving the Justice Department and prosecutors enormous power over elected officials.”

“Common”? How common is it for a governor and his wife to get more than $175,000 in “luxury products, loans and vacations” from one company owner? If this is “common”, doesn’t that suggest that these sorts of crimes aren’t being prosecuted enough, not that the law is too broadly applied?

Mr. McDonnell, who attended the argument on Wednesday, arranged meetings for and attended events with his benefactor. But Mr. Williams, whose company made a diet supplement, did not have any real success in obtaining support for his product from the state. A jury found that Mr. McDonnell’s actions amounted to corruption, and a federal appeals court upheld the conviction.

Noel J. Francisco, a lawyer for Mr. McDonnell, said his client should not have been convicted, as he did not “make a government decision or urge someone else to do so.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, McDonnell hosted an event for Star Scientific, his benefactor’s company, in the governor’s mansion. McDonnell’s own staff thought the decision was “suspicious” and potentially a violation of laws, or at least custom for use of the governor’s taxpayer-funded mansion. Just because Williams didn’t get everything he wanted doesn’t mean he didn’t get anything.

The corruption laws, Francisco added, were “not meant to be comprehensive codes of ethical conduct.”

Anyone else getting a Lionel Hutz vibe here? “Your honor, my client’s behavior wasn’t clearly illegal, it was just deeply unethical!”