Where the Real Blame for Letting Bridgegate Defendants Off Lies: Part II — the Congress

Anticorruption advocates roundly condemned the Supreme Court for its May 7 Bridgegate decision overturning two New Jersey officials’ corruption convictions for conduct even their lawyer admits was wrong (examples here, here, and here).  But as explained in a previous post on Bridgegate, so named because the case involved closing bridge entry ramps to create traffic jams, the Court is not to blame for the result.  The immediate cause was Bridgegate prosecutors pushing beyond the limits the Court has ruled current law sets on their power to police state and local corruption.

It is Congress, though, that bears the lion’s share of the blame for the outcome. Congress needs to clarify when state and local officials can be prosecuted under federal law for corruption.  Until it does, more Bridgegates, cases where the Court rebuffs federal prosecutors’ expansive view of their power to prosecute state and local corruption, are in store.  As with Bridgegate, the result will be that corrupt officials get off scot free while the American public is left to question their government’s commitment to fighting corruption. Continue reading

Law Profs: Stop the Overheated Rhetoric About Bridgegate

As Matthew explained yesterday, last Thursday the Supreme Court ruled that a political dirty trick, generating a traffic jam for a town’s residents after their mayor refused to support the reelection of the state’s governor, while an abuse of power, does not constitute fraud under federal criminal law. The Court’s unanimous decision in “Bridgegate,” so named because the traffic jam was created by closing two of the three lanes residents use to drive across the George Washington Bridge, was authored by former Harvard Law School Dean and Obama Solicitor General Justice Elena Kagan.  That the decision was unanimous and written by a member of the Court’s liberal wing are two of several clues in the Court’s opinion showing it is no part of a Trump-inspired plot to legalize public corruption. Washington Post readers, however, could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. For Michigan Law School Professor Leah Litman wrote in the paper’s March 10 edition that the Court’s decision is the latest in “a string of failed corruption cases” that has made it “almost impossible to put a crooked politician in jail.”

This is plain nonsense. Continue reading

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Opinion in the “Bridgegate” Case: Some Quick Reactions

While I’m still finding it a bit difficult to think or write about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic, there have nevertheless been some other newsworthy corruption-related developments in recent weeks. One of them—perhaps, I admit, or more interest to our U.S. readers than to others—was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week in United States v. Kelly, which overturned the federal criminal convictions of two close associates of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for their role in a scandal known as “Bridgegate.” Back in 2013, when then-Governor Christie (a Republican) was seeking re-election, he sought to bolster his candidacy by securing the endorsements of several Democratic mayors of New Jersey cities. When the mayor of the city of Fort Lee declined to endorse Governor Christie, several of Christie’s allies who worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the entity that regulates transportation in the busy New York-New Jersey region) retaliated against the mayor by deliberately closing lanes on the busy George Washington Bridge, creating major traffic jams in Fort Lee for several days. They justified the closures with a “traffic study,” but this, the evidence adduced at trial clearly showed, was an utterly dishonest pretext for an act of political retribution. Nobody seriously contests that what these Port Authority officials (who were fired after the scandal was exposed) did was a corrupt abuse of power. But was it also a federal crime? U.S. federal prosecutors argued that it was, and convinced a jury to convict, but the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed and reversed the conviction.

There’s already been quite a bit of commentary on the Kelly decision. A number of critics argue that Kelly, together with several previous Supreme Court decisions, “opens the door to a distressing form of government corruption,” and has made federal prosecution of corruption “nearly impossible.” Other commentators asserted that not only did the Court reach the correct legal conclusion, but in fact the law properly does not criminalize the conduct of the officials in this case—because doing so, according to these commentators, would have sweeping and undesirable consequences, criminalizing a wide swath of garden-variety political conduct (such as using government power to benefit supporters and/or lying about the true motivations behind regulatory actions).

I should confess right now that I haven’t followed the legal arguments in this case very closely, nor am I an expert in the specific statutes at issue. With that important caveat, my own assessment is somewhere in the middle:

  • I think that, given the wording of the relevant statutes and prior Supreme Court precedent, the Court’s decision in Kelly is probably correct, and certainly defensible.
  • I don’t think the decision breaks that much new ground or makes it substantially harder for federal prosecutors to go after other forms of corruption, such as “garden variety” bribery or embezzlement.
  • That said, the decision does highlight an important gap in the coverage of existing federal anticorruption laws, and I tend to think that the sort of behavior at issue in this case—behavior that, in the Supreme Court’s words, amounted to “corruption [and] abuse of power”—can and should be criminalized (under federal as well as state law). Such criminalization, if accomplished through a sufficiently well-tailored statute, would not criminalize “ordinary politics,” at least not the sort of ordinary politics we ought to tolerate.

Let me elaborate a bit on each of these points: Continue reading

Is It Time to Amend U.S. Domestic Anti-Bribery Statutes?

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

Guest Post: The Blagojevich Case and the Line Between Corruption and Horse-Trading

Jennifer Rodgers and Jacob Watkins, respectively Executive Director and Program Coordinator for the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), contribute the following guest post:

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recently back in the news, but this time for something he didn’t do wrong, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated 5 of the 18 counts on which Blagojevich was convicted in 2011. The appellate court’s decision hinged upon the distinction between illegal corruption and legal (if distasteful) political horse-trading, an issue recently touched upon in the decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to uphold former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s public corruption convictions (which Matthew discussed here). The outcome of the Blagojevich appeal shows that under current U.S. law, whether or not a public official’s deal-making is illegal depends upon what exactly the official is bargaining for. Political horse-trading–exchanging one official act for another official act–is not a crime under U.S. federal law, but exchanging an official act for a private benefit is. The decision in the Blagojevich provides a useful opportunity for thinking more generally about how the law ought to draw that difficult line. Continue reading