McDonnell v. United States was a 2016 case tried in front of the United States Supreme Court, that was found unanimously in favor of Robert McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia, who had been convicted on charges of public corruption, or more specifically, "honest services wire fraud". The Supreme Court found that in order to convict a public official of an act of corruption, that public official had to have committed an "official act". This finding led to a reversal of the conviction of a number of other convicted politicians. Despite being a unanimous decision, it has some controversy attached to it.

First, a bit about the underlying case, which I will try to describe succinctly: McDonnell, the governor of Virginia, had some associates who were running a company that was selling nutritional supplements. These associates gave McDonnell several very expensive gifts. In return, McDonnell arranged meetings with officials at Virginia's public universities, encouraging them to test the product. He also had a public event for the company at the governor's mansion. In other words, he used his official position to promote a company, that had given him expensive gifts.

The Supreme Court, however, found that these were not "official acts". Mentioning a business to a government official, or even suggesting a meeting, are not part of the official power of the governor. Neither is promoting a business--- holding a reception at the governor's mansion was a social function, not an official act. Apparently. (Although the Supreme Court didn't say that these weren't official acts--- merely that the prosecutor had not proven that they were, and that if they wished to retry McDonnell, they would have to do it in such a way that the jury was aware of what the crime entailed.)

In my view, the Supreme Court was very right in one way, and very wrong in another way.

From a civil liberties standpoint, the Supreme Court was right. Crimes should be defined in a way that involves specific acts, and not just guilt by association or by normal conduct. There are probably around 500,000 elected officials in the United States, most of them serving in local government. Oftentimes, especially in smaller communities, political life and social life don't have well-defined boundaries. Is a city council member who invites a small business person who may be a potential vendor for the city to their house for dinner behaving in a criminal way? What about the schoolboard member who mentions that one of the candidates for a job was someone she went to State U with? Prior to the Supreme Court's ruling, public officials could be prosecuted for normal social interaction. Having the law defined in a way that it involved a provable use of official powers makes sense to preserve civil liberties.

On the other hand, from a viewpoint of government integrity, it is naive and unworkable. To start with, while I used the example of people from a small community who have constant social contact as something it would be impossible to define inappropriate interactions in, there is a clear, obvious difference between, say, an incidental conversation over coffee by a government official and a business person in a town of 2000 people, and when the governor of Virginia gets a new Rolex and then "arranges" a meeting. The Supreme Court's requirement basically means that unless a government official says "Give me a big bag of money and I will change a law for you!". In practical terms, the university officials that were "suggested" to take a meeting with the supplement company knew that they were being coerced. If they chose to not take the governor's suggestions, they can be punished in various ways, while the governor has plausible deniability. In practical terms, it is easy for us to see that there was a clear interchange of gifts for official acts.

While the decision makes sense, and from a civil liberties viewpoint protects the great majority of small time government officials from having their normal daily conduct criminalized, it needs to have some type of balance where very obvious examples of coercive abuse by government officials can be identified as such. One of several things to work on in the upcoming years.

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