Last Wednesday appeared to be a good day for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, as U.S. Supreme Court justices skeptically questioned government lawyers about McDonnell’s conviction on corruption charges.
It was not such a good day for democracy, especially if those questions signal the leanings of at least five of the justices necessary to overturn the conviction.
McDonnell and his wife were convicted of accepting more than $175,000 in gifts and cash from vitamin company executive Jonnie Williams in exchange for the governor’s actions pushing a new dietary supplement.
The questioning at the court focused on whether McDonnell’s actions rose to the level of “official acts” rather than “routine” or “everyday” actions that politicians regularly perform for campaign contributors or others who have given them gifts.
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“For better or for worse, it puts at risk behavior that is common,” Justice Stephen Breyer said.
Many of the justices failed to see the problem inherent in the fact that this behavior is exactly that: common.
Wealthy donors ply officeholders with gifts and money in exchange for influence and results that ordinary citizens can’t access or expect.
Missouri is a sad case in point.
With no caps on campaign contributions, no limits on gifts to lawmakers and no waiting period for lawmakers to return to the Capitol as professional lobbyists after leaving office, this state has seen far more than its share of legal corruption and ethics scandals.
The growing number of these scandals has finally prompted movement in the General Assembly to pass some genuine ethics reforms. There’s disagreement about how far to go and whether, for instance, to actually cap campaign contributions.
But Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, did a good job summing up a simple principle we hope U.S. Supreme Court justices will affirm:
“Public officials should not use their positions for private profit.”
Influence-peddling used to be considered a crime. But then came the Citizens United ruling and other decisions in which justices opined that mere access and influence afforded by large donations aren’t corrupting unless they result in someone making a government decision or urging someone else to do so.
Chief Justice John Roberts favorably cited a brief filed for McDonnell by former White House counsels to the past five presidents. Those individuals argued that upholding this conviction would “cripple the ability of elected officials to fulfill their role in our representative democracy.”
That’s true only if you accept that the role of elected officials is to enrich themselves and their campaigns by offering access to the wealthy and elite.
Justices appeared worked up by the fact that there wasn’t a clear line delineating what constitutes “official acts.” But a clear line isn’t that hard to draw: McDonnell took action that he could take only because the people of Virginia elected him. In return, he was showered with gifts and cash by a man who stood to benefit from those actions.
McDonnell hosted a product launch for Williams’ new dietary supplement in the governor’s mansion — the people’s house. He pressured state universities to do clinical tests on the supplement; the universities declined, but university officials said they felt the pressure from the governor’s office.
The functioning of a representative democracy isn’t threatened by punishing such actions. It’s threatened by not punishing such actions.
Bob McDonnell appeared to use his position for private profit. If his conviction is overturned, the Supreme Court will be saying that is acceptable.
It is not.