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Politics & Government

Supreme Court Overturns Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's Conviction


It was a busy day at the U.S. Supreme Court, and among its big decisions, the court overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell. It was a unanimous vote, and in the process, the justices set a new, tougher standard for prosecuting public officials. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The case against McDonnell is famous for the gifts he got - an engraved Rolex watch, loans, designer clothes for his wife, Maureen, a $15,000 catered meal for their daughter's wedding. But the Supreme Court said what a government official gets isn't important. What counts is whether that official makes any pledges.

When McDonnell helped his benefactor, a businessman marketing a tobacco-related dietary supplement, his actions were relatively minor. Randall Eliason is a law professor and blogger who's followed the McDonnell case.

RANDALL ELIASON: Arranging phone calls, arranging meetings, things like that - and the key, as the court pointed out, is not so much what he actually did but what he agreed to do.

OVERBY: So suppose McDonnell agreed to work on influencing a government decision.

ELIASON: If that agreement existed, that violates the statute, and the court made that clear.

OVERBY: This is long-sought good news for politicians. Defense attorney Abbe Lowell represents New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Lowell pointed out that Republican McDonnell and Democrat Menendez both are accused of committing official acts in exchange for gifts. Lowell said of the Supreme Court...

ABBE LOWELL: What they said is you need a much more specific definition of what an official action is and not just the expansive of what the government prosecuted Governor McDonnell for and I believe what they have charged Senator Menendez with.

OVERBY: But the court's reasoning may not sit well with voters, especially those who say the system is rigged against ordinary people. Here's Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at the NYU School of Law.

RICHARD PILDES: What the court is saying here is something that we know is true even if it goes down, you know, hard.

OVERBY: Pildes said politicians meet with all kinds of people - friends, supporters, financial supporters.

PILDES: They're going to be more interested in arranging meetings for people who are supportive than people who aren't. And the criminal law cannot be based on an overly pure view of how democracy works.

OVERBY: As for McDonnell, he's always maintained his innocence, as he did last April when the Supreme Court heard his case.


ROBERT MCDONNELL: Never during any time in my 38 years of public service have I ever done anything that would abuse the powers of my office.

OVERBY: Today the court left the door open for federal prosecutors in Richmond to re-charge McDonnell. The decision also affects Maureen McDonnell. She wasn't a government official, but she was convicted on conspiracy to commit the crimes the Supreme Court has now redefined. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.