Last month’s hung jury in the trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, coming hard on the heels of appellate court decisions to vacate the convictions of former U.S. Congressman William Jefferson and New York state legislators Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, has increased public attention to domestic U.S. anti-bribery laws—and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of those laws. As Professor Zephyr Teachout puts it, the Court, beginning in the 1999 case Sun-Diamond Growers and continuing up through last year’s decision in McDonnell, has steadily “hollowed out” U.S. anti-bribery laws, making it much more difficult to convict “anyone but the most inept criminals.”
Now, some of the recent commentary, particularly on the impact of the McDonnell case, may overstate things a bit. As Maddie pointed out in a recent post, the fact that the Skelos and Silver convictions (and, she might have added, the Jefferson conviction) were vacated in light of McDonnell doesn’t necessarily imply that the conduct alleged in those cases is now legal. Rather, the appellate decisions held that the jury instructions were improperly phrased, and left the door open for a retrial (which will occur in these other cases, even though the government declined to retry McDonnell). And we don’t really know how much of an effect the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell or other cases affected the jury’s inability to reach a verdict in Menendez; it’s possible that even with a jury instruction identical to the one found deficient in McDonnell, some of the Menendez jurors would have voted to acquit. All that said, there are certainly good reasons for concern about the seemingly narrow scope of U.S. anti-bribery law.
Some of this blame, as Professor Teachout persuasively argues, can be laid at the feet of the Supreme Court. Indeed, I argued that McDonnell’s conviction should have been affirmed, and criticized the Court’s unanimous decision to vacate it. That said, I do think there’s an argument in favor of the Supreme Court’s ruling in McDonnell, at least if the holding is read narrowly as concerning the phrasing of the jury instructions. Likewise, in Sun-Diamond Growers, the Court’s holding is actually quite plausible as a reading of the unlawful gratuities statute. (The Court held that a conviction under this statute, which prohibits corruptly giving anything of value to a public official “because of any official act” performed by that official, requires the government to show a connection between the gift and a specific official act, rather than relying on the more general claim that the recipient is in a position to make decisions that affect the giver’s welfare. The Court’s interpretation of the statutory language, while contestable, is certainly reasonable.)
Moreover, if we’re looking for an institution to blame for the current state of U.S. anti-bribery law—or to lobby for improvements in that law—the Supreme Court is perhaps not the only target. There’s also the U.S. Congress, which could, and arguably should, amend the hodge-podge of anti-bribery laws to fill some of the gaps that we find in current law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court. After all, though the Court has dropped occasional troubling hints about possible constitutional concerns with a broad reading of the anti-bribery statutes, most of the Court’s rulings in this area, in contrast to the related but distinct campaign finance context, are statutory rather than constitutional. And that means that Congress could conceivably step in to fix the problem. Continue reading