Video: Columbia Law School Proxy Debate on McDonnell’s Bribery Appeal

As regular GAB readers know, we’ve had quite a bit of discussion on this blog about the case of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, and I’ve been particularly adamant in my views that the conviction ought to be affirmed. (See here, here, here, and here.) The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McDonnell’s case tomorrow morning, and if anything interesting happens I may write about it again. In the meantime, while there won’t be a live audio or video of the Supreme Court argument, anyone who’s dying to hear some live debate about the legal argument is in luck! (Well, sort of.) A couple weeks ago the Columbia Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity hosted (in collaboration with the Columbia Federalist Society) a debate on the McDonnell case between John Malcolm, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and yours truly.

The full video is here. From my perspective, the most important exchange is at 47:13-50:38, where I put to Mr. Malcolm the question whether a federal crime would have been completed if the businessman (Jonnie Williams) and Governor McDonnell agreed that Mr. Williams would provide Governor McDonnell with valuable items (cash or the equivalent), and in exchange—as part of a quid pro quo—the governor would use his influence to get state medical institutions to perform expensive medical studies on the product Mr. Williams’ company produced. Mr. Malcolm concedes that the answer is yes: In that hypothetical example the “official act” element would be satisfied, so long as the quid pro quo is proved. (I make that initial point at 30:59-31:50 of the video and restate it, in the context of the adequacy of the jury instructions, at 34:57-35:32. But, again, the most important part of the exchange is at 47:13-50:38.)

To me, that concession ought to be the end of the argument. Mr. Malcolm’s argument, like that of Governor McDonnell’s lawyers, boils down to the claim that the particular steps that the governor took to try (unsuccessfully) to bring about those tests weren’t official acts (a conclusion, by the way, that I think is just wrong, but put that aside). But that doesn’t matter, because in this case there was an express quid pro quo involving a specific official act. Of course I’ve got my own strongly-held views on this. I leave it to interested readers to watch the video, and read the Supreme Court transcript once it’s available, and decide what you think.

One more aspect of the debate worth noting: In attempting to distinguish the McDonnell case from the Bob Menendez case and certain hypothetical examples I raised (see 38:53-40:25), Mr. Malcolm suggested, as a distinction, that the federal bribery statutes don’t apply if the subject of the quid pro quo is a matter that is not yet pending before the government (see 42:15-45:52 and 45:55-46:21). I didn’t have time to respond to that suggestion during the event itself, nor is it (to my knowledge) an argument that McDonnell’s lawyers have raised in their briefs, but for what it’s worth, I think the claim is inconsistent with the relevant statutes. Notably, 18 U.S.C. 201(a)(3) defines “official act” as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit” (emphasis added). Seems clear to me that a promised act can still be “official” even if the matter concerns an action that is not yet pending, but that may be pending in the future, or that could be brought before an official, even if it has not yet been. I suspect Mr. Malcolm may have been improvising a bit here–neither of us had the statute in front of us or committed to memory. In any event, the difficulties in a holding that the federal bribery statutes don’t apply as long as the subject of the quid pro quo is not yet formally pending before the government at the time the bribe takes place ought to be too obvious to belabor.