WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – The next two years of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s life now rests in the hands of the Supreme Court’s eight sitting justices.
McDonnell, once a GOP heavyweight pegged for being a future party leader, saw his personal and political fortunes collapse thanks to an ethics probe that ended in a drawn-out trial and 11 corruption convictions.
His final shot at clearing his name came down to today’s 10 a.m. hearing.
The high court rarely takes up such cases involving public officials, so McDonnell v. United States takes on special significance in fleshing out what qualifies as honest-to-god corruption in the political arena.
By all accounts, the majority of justices appeared sympathetic to McDonnell and other politicians toeing the same fuzzy line between political transactions and corruption.
On the rainy courthouse steps afterward, Mr. McDonnell expressed gratitude to his lawyers and supporters.
“I want to give credit to my Lord Jesus for his sustaining me, my wife, and my family during these last 39 months,” he added.
Now the real work begins: fine-tuning the legal definition of public corruption.
Bob McDonnelll and his wife Maureen faced trials for accepting extravagant gifts from Virginia CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr., whom they call a personal friend.
The McDonnells accepted “… $177,000 in luxury items, vacations and loans from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., although there was no direct evidence McDonnell ordered state officials to take actions that Williams wanted,” reports the Washington Post.
Mr. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison. Mrs. McDonnell received a 366-day sentence.
After appealing to, and losing in, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Mr. McDonnell played his last card: a SCOTUS appeal, which was accepted to the surprise of many.
During Wednesday’s oral arguments, the justices’ eagerness for taking the case became more apparent. They now appear ready to narrow the definition of public corruption.
With his wife standing behind him, an adamant McDonnell told the press gathered on the SCOTUS steps, “Never, at any time, in my 38 years of public service have I ever done anything that would abuse the powers of my office.”
McDonnell’s final day in court
McDonnell sat next to Maureen and his children in the courtroom gallery as his attorney, Noel Francisco, argued his two-pronged case before the mostly-friendly panel of judges.
Francisco repeatedly insisted that government prosecutors overplayed their hand by a) flubbing jury instructions on what counts as “official acts” and b) failing to delineate between a politician introducing donors to decision-makers and one trying to illegally influence those decision-makers on donors’ behalf.
There’s no doubt that McDonnell used his “bully pulpit authority” as governor, said Francisco, but pushed back on the notion that he exerted real authority by simply playing political matchmaker.
It all comes down to influence.
Simply banning the exertion of influence “is too broad,” agreed left-leaning Justice Stephen Breyer.
Leaving such definitions solely up to the feds “is a recipe for giving the Department of Justice and prosecutors enormous powers over elected officials,” warned Breyer.
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, arguing on behalf of the government, countered that going too narrow is “a recipe for corruption.”
Breyer conceded that making the corruption definition more precise will allow some “crooks” to go unprosecuted, but said it’s better than the alternative of ensnaring law abiding officials.
Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that current laws might be “unconstitutionally vague” on the definition of “official acts” that warrant bribery charges.
And Justice Elena Kagan, a former solicitor general with vast governmental experience, admitted she’s “troubled” by how far such prosecutions could be extended.
In all, at least five of the eight justices seemed to agree that more clarity is necessitated, including: Roberts, Kennedy, Breyer, Alito and Kagan. One could also assume that Justice Clarence Thomas, who remains silent in court, likely lands in the Breyer camp.
Throughout the 60-minute hearing, the justices hammered the federal government’s case, asking if a smorgasbord of hypotheticals fall into the corruption category, including:
• Trout fishing trips (Roberts)
• A bottle of beer for cleaning certain classrooms first (Kennedy)
• Making calls on behalf of donors, arranging meetings (Kagan)
• Free raincoat (Breyer)
McDonnell was the final set of oral arguments of the term. It drew few questions from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Three possible outcomes
With only eight justices remaining on the bench for the foreseeable future, a 4-4 tie is unlikely but possible. This outcome generally upholds the appellate court’s decision without setting a national precedent. In the case of McDonnell, he would be sent to prison for two years.
If a majority of the eight judges side with federal prosecutors – again, probably unlikely – Mr. McDonnell would be ordered to prison to serve his two-year sentence.
If the justices agree with McDonnell, his convictions could be wholly or partly wiped out. Mrs. McDonnell’s appeal is currently on hold in a lower court and would likely follow a similar course.
Prevailing wisdom predicts that the justices will find that corruption definitions must be more tailored and rule, at least partially, in McDonnell’s favor.
A final ruling is expected in June.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales