Supreme Court vacates former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s conviction

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Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell (2nd R) speaks to members of the media in front of the U.S. Supreme Court April 27, 2016 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court heard the corruption appeal from McDonnell, who and his wife were convicted of accepting more than $175,000 of gifts and favors from businessman Jonnie Williams, who wanted their help to promote his dietary supplement product called Anatabloc. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously threw out the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The 8-0 decision leaves open the possibility McDonnell can be retried but his current conviction is vacated.

“Because the jury was not correctly instructed on the meaning of ‘official act,’ it may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “For that reason, we cannot conclude that the errors in the jury instructions were ‘harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.’ We accordingly vacate Governor McDonnell’s convictions.”

At issue is what constitutes the scope of “official action” under federal corruption law.

In 2014, McDonnell was convicted of 11 counts by a federal jury that found that he violated the law when he and his wife received money and loans (around $175,000 and a Rolex watch) from Jonnie R. Williams, the CEO of a Virginia based company called Star Scientific. Williams at the time was seeking state support in a bid to get FDA approval for a dietary supplement his company was developing called Antabloc.

The government argued that McDonnell received loans, deluxe shopping trips and golf outings and in return used the power of his office to help Williams’ company.

McDonnell — who attended oral arguments with his wife Maureen — asked the Supreme Court to reverse his conviction. In 2015, he had been on the verge of reporting to prison for his two-year sentence when the court allowed him to stay out of jail pending his appeal.

McDonnell’s lawyers argued that his actions were limited to routine political courtesies and he never put his thumb on a scale by exercising government power on Williams’ behalf.

The case centered around the question of what constitutes the scope of an “official action” under federal corruption law — and at oral arguments several justices searched for the proper line to draw between the regular activities of a politician, and actions that could violate corruption laws.

Public officials, as well as those who appear before them have been carefully watching the case to see the boundaries they face when interacting with constituents, donors and business leaders.

McDonnell’s lawyers said that the governor’s actions were limited to routine political courtesies such as arranging meetings, asking questions and attending events and that he never exercised any government power on behalf of Williams.

Noel Francisco, a lawyer for McDonnell, argued that the lower courts stretched “corruption laws beyond recognition.”

“This case marks the first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision,” Francisco argued in court papers. Francisco told the justices that in order someone to violate the law, they would need to either make a decision on behalf of the government or try to use his influence to pressure another person with governmental power to make a decision on an action.

He said that the government’s position in the case puts “every federal, state and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs.”

At oral arguments, justices also questioned the scope of federal laws prosecutors used to convict McDonnell and struggled with where the line is between routine political action and the “official act” that would trigger corruption statutes.

Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that former White House counsels on both sides of the aisle argued in a brief that if the lower court decision is upheld it would, “cripple the ability of elected officials to fulfill their role in a representative democracy.”

The skepticism cut across the bench, with more liberal Justice Stephen Breyer being the most vigorous questioner of the government and expressing concern that the Justice Department could wield “enormous power” and that prosecutors could be “overly zealous.” He also repeatedly stressed concern that such laws could put at risk “behavior that is common.”