Supreme Court May Relax Federal Bribery Law

A former mayor’s lawyer said the law is ripe for abuse.
Supreme Court May Relax Federal Bribery Law
U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on March 22, 2024. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court seemed unreceptive on April 15 to the Biden administration’s efforts to uphold the bribery conviction of former small-town mayor James Snyder.

The justices appeared willing during oral arguments to rein in the broad sweep of a public corruption law that civil libertarians say has been used overzealously by prosecutors in recent years. The law criminalizes the receipt of gifts by certain government employees.

The court has been willing to overturn corruption convictions that involve public officials doing things that some think of as normal political activities.

For example, in 2016, the Supreme Court vacated the conviction of the former Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, for taking gifts from a benefactor without actually taking action to benefit that person.

And in 2020, the court overturned the convictions of two former political operatives who, as allies of then-Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, closed lanes at a toll plaza for part of the George Washington Bridge—known as the “Bridgegate” traffic-congestion scandal—in 2013. The operatives altered the traffic pattern on lanes leading to the bridge as payback to the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for not supporting Mr. Christie’s reelection campaign.

The court determined that even though the officials’ actions constituted an “abuse of power,” they didn’t run afoul of federal law because the “scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property.”

In the case at hand, Mr. Snyder, a Republican who was mayor of Portage, Indiana, was convicted by a federal jury in 2021 of bribery for soliciting and accepting $13,000 from a business that took in more than $1.1 million in city contracts. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison. He was also convicted of defrauding the IRS but acquitted on a separate bribery charge related to a tow truck contract. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the bribery conviction.

The case concerns 18 United States Code Section 666(a)(l)(B), which makes it a crime for a state or local official to “corruptly solicit, demand ... or accept ... anything of value from any person, intending to be influenced or rewarded in connection with any” government business involving anything valued at $5,000 or more.

Federal courts of appeal are divided over whether Section 666 criminalizes gratuities, which are defined as “payments in recognition of actions the official has already taken or committed to take, without any quid pro quo agreement to take those actions,” according to Mr. Snyder’s petition.

Although Section 666 requires an official to act “corruptly,” courts of appeal and the government “read that word to require only that officials knew they were getting something of value that was intended to reward them.”

“That capacious interpretation risks chilling an enormous range of legitimate conduct. A constituent might donate to the campaign of a politician who took an action the constituent likes. Or a real estate agent might offer a deal on a condo to a city housing official whose policies helped the agent weather a recession.”

Mr. Snyder’s attorney, Lisa Blatt, said during oral arguments that Section 666 covers 19 million state, local, and tribal officials, along with anyone else whose employer receives federal benefits, including 14 million Medicare-funded healthcare employees.

“Congress did not plausibly subject all of these people to 10 years in prison just for accepting gifts, especially when federal officials face only two years for accepting gifts under 201(c)” of 18 United States Code, she said.

Section 666 makes it illegal to corruptly receive anything of value while intending to be influenced or rewarded, she said. This covers classic bribes in which officials receive upfront payments in exchange for official conduct, while “corruptly intending to be rewarded” encompasses bribes paid after the fact and to officials who aren’t actually influenced.

The problem is that the government argues “corruptly” under the section means “wrongful, immoral, depraved, or evil,” even though in prior cases the government has insisted “corruptly” meant knowingly, Ms. Blatt said.

The government’s new definition is “Kafkaesque,” as well as “implausible and stunningly vague,” she said.

“No gratuity statute ... uses the word ‘corruptly’ and for good reason. The government can’t tell you what gifts are corrupt. What gift is too much for the doctor who saves your life?”

Ms. Blatt said it’s impossible to draw a line between forbidden gifts and acceptable ones. A cheap meal at a fast food restaurant may be acceptable, according to the government, while a pricey meal at an expensive restaurant would not, she said.

“You’d have to draw a line between the two-buck chuck at Trader Joe’s and the wine that goes up to $500,000. And I don’t know where the government’s line is. There is no drop-down menu on Amazon for mens rea,” she said, using a legal term meaning criminal intent.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the value of an impermissible gift is anything worth $5,000 or more, according to Section 666, but Ms. Blatt said that threshold was easily met.

“A doctor who removes your wart, fine, but the doctor who takes your gallbladder out or does your face, like my plastic surgeon, no, that’s worth over $5,000,” the attorney said.

Department of Justice attorney Colleen Sinzdak, who was subjected to aggressive questioning by the justices, said the law is not concerned with “innocuous gift-giving activity that occurs in the ordinary course of business.”

Mr. Snyder’s case should be compared with a police chief demanding $10,000 after his officers prevented a burglary or a safety inspector asking for $30,000 for granting a permit for a dangerous enterprise, the lawyer said.

Justice Elena Kagan said the law applies “not just to government officials but to pretty much, like, every important institution in America.” Would a hospital get in trouble for providing a billionaire special treatment in the hope of getting a big donation from the person, she asked.

“That would land you 10 years in prison?” the justice said.

Ms. Sinzdak said the government would not pursue dubious cases, but Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back.

“We’ve had several cases where we’ve made the very clear point that we don’t rely on the good faith of the prosecutors in deciding cases like this,” the justice said.

Justice Clarence Thomas, 75, did not attend the hearing. The court did not explain why he was absent. Chief Justice Roberts reportedly said Justice Thomas would nevertheless participate in the case by reading the transcript of the arguments and the briefs filed.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case, known as Snyder v. United States, by the end of June.