The same Supreme Court that unleashed a torrent of political corruption with its Citizens United ruling of 2010 has now expanded its support for legalized bribery with a unanimous decision to vacate former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s conviction for corruption.
Written by the Court’s most ardent advocate for the corporations-are-people, money-is-speech fantasy that is remaking American politics and governance—Chief Justice John Roberts—Monday’s decision in McDonnell v. United States places another link in the chain of protection for influence peddling that Roberts and his colleagues have been forging.
“Governor Robert McDonnell accepted nearly $200,000 in cash and luxury goods, including a Rolex watch and flights in a private jet, in exchange for using the Governor’s office to help a business. The Supreme Court today held that although the Governor and his aides took action—with state resources—on behalf of the business, those actions do not go far enough to constitute ‘official actions’ without prosecutors proving still more, creating an additional hurdle before corrupt conduct is considered illegal,” explains Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “This narrow reading of the law will seriously impede law enforcement’s efforts to clamp down on corruption. The Supreme Court essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their office to the highest bidder. If you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up.”
CREW is just one good-government group that is expressing outrage at a court decision that Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer says “greatly weakens existing legal protections against government corruption.”
“We’re very disappointed that the court took such a narrow view of what amounts to bribery under the law,” says Scott Nelson, an attorney who did the legal work on an exceptionally strong amicus brief that was filed in regard to the McDonnell case by Public Citizen and Democracy 21. “This ruling opens the way for corporate executives and wealthy individuals to undermine our democracy by buying influence at the state level.”
While Nelson says he is “pleased that the court didn’t accept the constitutional arguments made by McDonnell that the First Amendment protects quid pro quo payoffs made to government officials to influence government policy,” he and other serious observers understand that will come as little comfort for citizens who lack the resources to buy elections or to buy access to public officials.