Thanks to the Trump impeachment imbroglio, Americans are brushing up on Latin. Or at least on the Latin phrase quid pro quo. Though Trump’s partisans and opponents are at each other’s throats about virtually everything, a consensus has emerged that if his dealings with Ukraine involved a quid pro quo, he is in trouble. The reason: the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held (examples here and here) that the touchstone of the American federal crime of bribery is the presence of a quid pro quo. If the impeachment investigation were to uncover one in his Ukraine dealings, Trump would be guilty of bribery, one of three crimes, along with treason and high crimes and misdemeanors, for which he can be removed from office under Article II of the U.S. Constitution.
Quid pro quo means “this for that,” the archetypal example being someone who provides “this money” for “that action” by a public official. But the translation misleads by its simplicity, glossing over critical questions which Congress will have to answer in deciding whether Trump should be removed from office for his actions involving Ukraine:
Must the “this for that” be in the form of an explicit agreement? Must, that is, there be a meeting of the minds between the two?
Or is a promise enough? That the payer or the recipient merely asked for something – a payment, the performance of an official act — from the other.
Must the terms of the agreement or promise be express? Stated clearly, leaving nor room for doubt. Explicit? Put into words whether written or not.
The Supreme Court, the lower courts, and academic commentators have wrestled with these questions for decades, and while not bound by their answers in an impeachment proceeding, Congress should surely pay heed to them. The federal judiciary arrived at them not during a white-hot partisan debate, with one eye on the effect of one’s chances for reelection. Instead, the answers were reached after deliberate, studied attention to the facts, to answers reached in previous cases, and to the consequences the answers would have on public servants’ future conduct.
Members of the House and Senate are not the only ones that would profit from a study of the American law of quid pro quo. Prosecutors, judges, and legislators in other nations would as well, for the quid pro quo requirement is part of all nations’ antibribery statutes (expressly stated in article VIII of the InterAmerican Convention Against Corruption and article IV of African Union Convention on Preventing and Combatting Corruption and following directly from the texts of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (article 15), the Council of Europe Criminal Law Convention on Corruption (article 2) and the OECD Antibribery Convention (article 1)). The United States is not the only nation with a bribery jurisprudence (here and here), but thanks to its size, aggressive law enforcement, and quality of its judiciary, its case law applying the quid pro quo standard is surely richer than most if not all.
A primer on it is below. Continue reading