Is the U.S. Supreme Court clueless about corruption?

Posted 5/11/16

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case brought by former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. He argued that just because he and his wife took $177,000 in loans, vacations and lavish gifts in exchange for using the governor’s …

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Is the U.S. Supreme Court clueless about corruption?

Posted

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case brought by former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. He argued that just because he and his wife took $177,000 in loans, vacations and lavish gifts in exchange for using the governor’s office to promote a dietary supplement, it doesn’t mean he deserves to go to prison for two years for corruption.

Surprisingly, based on the questions the justices asked, some of them appear sympathetic to the argument. Or maybe it’s not so surprising. Some of the members of this court have serious conflict of interest issues. Others have taken a very narrow definition of “corruption.” It’s as if they don’t know the public is watching, or if they are aware, they don’t care.

The decision in the McDonnell case, expected in late June, could have implications for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving 14 years in federal prison for official corruption.

But were his actions — and those of politicians like him — really corrupt? Or were they just performing certain favors for influential friends who showed their gratitude by helping them out financially?

McDonnell’s lawyers argue that his relationship with businessman Jonnie B. Williams was that of a politician and friend who needed a favor. It was, they say, politics as usual. McDonnell never performed an official act in return for the gifts and loans lavished upon them, they argue.Yes, he allowed Williams’ company to use the governor’s mansion to launch a sales campaign for its dietary supplement. Yes, they say, their client pitched the supplement to state officials in case they wanted to approve it for use in the state’s health plan.

But an actual official act, a quid for $177,000 worth of quo? Didn’t happen, McDonnell argues.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wondered if it wasn’t the same thing as a state janitor taking a bottle of beer for performing extra cleaning. Justice Stephen Breyer said the law used to convict McDonnell might implicate a member of Congress who asked a government official to look into something for a donor.

Kennedy, it will be recalled, is the same justice who wrote the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision and opened a floodgate of huge, and sometimes secret, donations to politicians. He thought public disclosure would settle any questions of corruption.

People don’t give politicians large amounts of money without expecting something in return. Conversely, people who don’t give politicians large amounts of money can be shut out of the process.

If McDonnell hadn’t been governor of Virginia, would Williams have paid for his daughter’s wedding? Or paid for the Rolex that his wife gave him for Christmas? Or loaned him tens of thousands of dollars and paid for his vacations?

This is not hard. McDonnell deserves what he got. And we don’t mean the Rolex.

— The St. Louis Post-Dispatch