Three out of four Americans think government corruption is widespread. Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president in part by claiming he couldn’t be bought. Bernie Sanders almost grabbed the Democratic nomination away from one of the most famous and powerful people on earth by decrying the influence of big money.
Yet by overturning the bribery conviction of Bob McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia, the Supreme Court this week just extended its incredible run of decisions driven by the concern that America has too many restrictions on money in politics.
Back in 2010, the majority held in Citizens United that corruption should be defined only as straightforward bribes. Do big donors to “independent” Super PACs get a receipt saying “Received: $5 Million in Return for Cutting Your Taxes”? No? Then according to the decision, the donation did “not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption,” and that’s all that matters.
Now in the unanimous McDonnell decision, the Court held that a lower court’s interpretation of quid pro quo defined the quo too broadly, because for McDonnell to run interference for his generous donors with state officials didn’t actually qualify as an “official decision.”
In other words, the Court first decided in 2010 that only out-and-out bribes matter, and now it has decided that only a carefully defined subset of bribes qualify.
In the McDonnell case, it was proven that Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a dietary supplement company, gave McDonnell an engraved Rolex watch, took McDonnell’s wife Maureen on a $20,000 shopping spree at Louis Vuitton and Oscar de le Renta in New York, loaned the couple over $100,000, and much more. In return, McDonnell set up meetings for Williams with Virginia officials that Williams used to push for the state to fund studies on the effectiveness of his supplements, pestered his staff about it, let Williams throw a product launch lunch at the governor’s mansion, and allowed Williams to add himself and associates to the guest list for a reception for state healthcare leaders. Williams himself testified that the gifts he gave the McDonnells were “a business transaction.”
But so what, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts: “Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf and include them in events all the time.” If McDonnell’s conviction stood, “officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse” – since presumably all citizens buy their governor’s wife a full length white leather coat and pay for him to go see the Final Four.
The Citizens United decision confidently proclaimed that “ingratiation and access” by themselves “are not corruption … The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”
The McDonnell ruling demonstrates the lengths the Supreme Court will go to to prove itself wrong.