Supreme Court limits scope of official action in public corruption cases

In our last couple posts, we’ve been looking at two federal appellate cases involving parallel issues. In the insider trading case, the issue is whether a psychological benefit can fulfill the personal benefit requirement under insider trading law. In the public corruption case involving former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnel, the issue is what exactly constitutes an official action sufficient to violate anti-corruption laws.

The importance of working with a strong advocate when facing criminal charges was evident in the Supreme Court’s decision in the McDonnel case, which was delivered on Monday. The court ended up throwing out the former governor’s conviction on a ruling of 8-0.

The decision to throw out the conviction was based on the court’s definition of official action, which it defined as taking action or making a decision with respect to a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy.” This does not include less official tasks such as setting up meetings, talking to other officials or organizing events. The court’s decision significantly narrows the scope of official action that can be subjected to prosecution under anti-corruption laws.

One of the reasons for narrowing the definition of official action is that adopting a broad interpretation would hurt elected officials’ ability to do their work in a democratic system. Given the parallel between the issue in this case and the central issue in the insider trading case involving Bassam Salman, it will be interesting to see whether a similar decision will be rendered in that case. We will keep our readers updated.


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