High court seems poised to overturn McDonnell conviction

Court Watch Posted on

The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed poised to overturn the conviction of former 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 Democratic and Republican administrations 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 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. Both Roberts and Breyer suggested the bribery law could be considered unconstitutionally vague.

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