The Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday seemed poised to overturn the conviction of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on political corruption charges and place new limits on the reach of federal bribery laws.
Justices across the ideological spectrum expressed major concerns that the laws give prosecutors too much power to criminalize the everyday acts that politician perform to help constituents.
Chief Justice John Roberts said it was "extraordinary" that dozens of former White House attorneys from both parties submitted legal papers saying that upholding McDonnell's conviction would cripple the ability of elected officials to do their jobs.
"I think it's extraordinary that those people agree on anything," Roberts said.
Justice Stephen Breyer said the law presents "a real separation of powers problem" and "puts at risk behavior that is common."
"That's a recipe for giving the Department of Justice and prosecutors enormous power over elected officials," Breyer said.
McDonnell, who was in the courtroom with his wife Maureen to watch the arguments, was convicted in 2014 of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement.
At issue is a federal law that bars public officials from accepting money or gifts in exchange for "official acts." The court is expected to clarify what distinguishes bribery from the routine actions that politicians often perform as a courtesy to constituents. But the justices struggled over how to draw that line.
Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben said the line McDonnell wants to draw "is a recipe for corruption." He told the justices it would be "stunning" for the court to find that bribery laws in place for decades are too vague.
But Justice Anthony Kennedy said it "would be absolutely stunning to say the government has given us no workable standard."
McDonnell insists his role in setting up meetings and hosting events for Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams was part of the customary services doled out by every politician. He says the government is placing every public official at risk of prosecution by criminalizing "everyday acts" that are a typical part of job.
There is no dispute that McDonnell and his wife hosted a product launch for Williams at the governor's mansion, attended other events promoting Star Scientific's products and asked other state officials to meet with Williams.
But lawyers for McDonnell argue that he never put any pressure on those officials and that Williams never got what he wanted — state funding for medical studies on the dietary pills.
"Never during any time in my 38 years of public service have I ever done anything that would abuse the powers of my office," McDonnell told reporters in brief remarks outside the court following the arguments.
Prosecutors say it is enough that McDonnell accepted personal benefits from Williams "on the understanding that he would take official action to assist Williams in return." Those actions included giving special treatment to Williams, including arranging for him to meet a state health official.
They argue that limiting the scope of the law "would allow the purchase and sale of much of what government employees do."
A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, unanimously upheld the former governor's convictions last year.
Williams loaned the couple tens of thousands of dollars to help them pay off debts, bought a Rolex watch for Bob McDonnell and purchased nearly $20,000 in designer clothes for McDonnell' wife, Maureen. He also gave them $15,000 to cater their daughter's wedding and paid for trips and golf outings for the couple and their children. Prosecutors said McDonnell usually responded within days of each gift to help garner support for Williams' supplement.
McDonnell and his wife were convicted in 2014. McDonnell was sentenced to serve two years in prison, while his wife was sentenced to one year and one day. McDonnell remains free while his appeal is being considered; his wife's appeal is on hold until the high court decides her husband's case. A ruling is expected by late June.