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