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Is The Supreme Court About To Legalize Political Bribery (Even More)?

“In the McDonnell case, [McDonnell’s] lawyers argued that what federal prosecutors called bribery was also really just speech by Jonnie R. Williams, the [benefactor of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell]…

Williams plied the McDonnell family with expensive vacations, a Rolex watch, fifteen thousand dollars for their daughter’s wedding reception, the use of a Ferrari, and a hundred and twenty thousand dollars in loans in an effort to get the governor to promote Williams’s nutritional-supplement enterprise. According to Francisco, Williams was only paying for access (which is generally legal), not government action (which is not).

The same concept is at the heart of both the Citizens United and McDonnell cases. In the campaign case, Kennedy said Congress could only prohibit quid-pro-quo corruption… [that is,] a direct exchange of a contribution in return for a government action, [otherwise] the First Amendment protected the right… As in Citizens United, the Justices appeared heading toward requiring a specific and obvious quid pro quo—a formalism that ignored the workings of the real world.”

— Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker discussing the Supreme Court arguments surrounding McDonnell v. United States, a case challenging the 2014  conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell on 11 counts of corruption — he received a sentence of two years in prison and immediately appealed.

McDonnell’s defense claimed that the case against him was brought by “overzealous prosecutors” and that convicting McDonnell would have serious consequences for other officeholders and normal citizens. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. countered this claim, by saying that the evidence bore out Williams’ desire to influence McDonnell’s dealings with other state officials and that, “Reaffirming that such quid pro quo agreements are unlawful poses no threat to legitimate political activity.”

While Toobin agrees that the Justices’ comments are not always clear indications of how they’ll vote, he worries about the vote given the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling which “prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations.” The ruling allowed corporations and unions to donate huge amounts of “dark money” (ie. funds that do not have to be publicly disclosed) to so-called super PACs (political action committees), enabling them to influence candidates and issue stances while maintaining a pretense of clean political dealings.

(featured image via Cheryl)