The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling throwing out the conviction of Gov. McDonnell (while leaving open the possibility of a retrial on a narrower theory of the case) is sensible and courageous, and shows the continuing important influence of Justice Scalia in this area of the law. It is hard to write an opinion letting off the hook someone whose actions were as odious as Gov. McDonnell, in taking rolexes, funding for his daughter’s wedding and more from someone who wanted the governor’s assistance in marketing the equivalent of snake oil. But it was the right thing to do.
In an earlier case, Sun-Diamond, Justice Scalia wrote a majority opinion (involving the conviction of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy on illegal gratuity charges) in which Justice Scalia warned about the criminalization of ordinary politics. This unaninimous opinion by Chief Justice Roberts follows that same lead. It is not enough that conduct is odious—the rules governing political action need to be clear enough so that politicians know the line between politics as usual and crossing the line. In this case, all the government had to prove was that the Governor contacted state officials and asked them to take a meeting with the donor. The government did not have to prove that the Governor sought to influence anyone’s decision on anything. This raised problems of both a vague statute as well as overzealous prosecutors (as I argued in an earlier oped in the NLJ). Prosecutors seek to make a name for themselves by going after corrupt politicians. But vague and broad laws criminalizing ordinary politics raise due process problems, selective prosecutions, and unfair treatment. Justice Scalia signaled this and here a unanimous court followed his lead.
Justice Scalia’s influence was also felt in the mode of analysis. Tellingly, Chief Justice Roberts begins with a textual analysis of the statute, and the canon of construction known as noscitur a socciis. He uses the textual tools to define what counts as an official act, and reads that statute in a way that avoids vagueness and makes sense. At least in the ordinary run of cases, Justices today follow Scalia’s lead and start with a textual analysis. It is not always the end of the analysis, but it is always the beginning. And in a case like this, presenting issues of possible overreach, the textual analysis lined up with the pragmatic analysis.
This opinion does not mean that there’s an easy path to corruption. Every state should make it illegal for public officials to accept large gifts from non-family members. And it may be on remand that McDonnnell will get convicted. But the law, and the line between politics and crime, must be clear. On this point, the Court was able to speak in one voice, and the case would have been 9-0 not 8-0 had Justice Scalia not died in February.