Outrage of the Week: Supreme Court legitimizes corruption
Next up is one of our regular features: This is the Outrage of the Week.
This actually happened a couple of weeks ago but something happened this week that makes it relevant now.
On June 27, in its last decision of the term, the Supreme Court unanimously, 8-0, overturned the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who had been convicted in 2014 of official corruption.
McDonnell and his wife Maureen, who was convicted of conspiracy on similar charges, received over $175,000 in loans and gifts, including vacations, designer clothes for Maureen, a Rolex watch, a $15,000 catered meal for their daughter's wedding, and the loan of a Ferrari, all from a businessman named Johnnie Williams who wanted help in promoting a tobacco-based dietary supplement.
The case hung on the question of what constitutes an "official act" under the law. And the Supreme Court found that, quoting Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the decision, "Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) - without more - does not fit the definition of an official act." And that's true even if the person doing all that is the governor, meaning those "other officials" to who he was talking cannot be on an equal footing with the person making the "request."
Peter Overby of NPR noted that "the Supreme Court said what a government official gets isn't important. What counts is whether that official makes any pledges." In other words and more bluntly, unless you can show some direct quid-pro-quo, unless you can show a case of "you give me this and I will do that," unless you can show that some politician is arranging meetings and make phone calls and so on because and only because they are being in some way paid to do so and that they are doing things they would not do for constituents absent that payment, then, according to the Supreme Court, it is not corruption.
On the basis of this, others convicted of corruption may be appealing their convictions based on this ruling. Not only Maureen McDonnell, but Sheldon Silver, former speaker of the New York State Assembly, and even former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez is under indictment on similar pay-to-play charges and his case, too, may now be thrown into question.
In fact, that's why I bring this up now, because it is already had an impact: On July 18, state prosecutors in Utah announced they are dropping charges against former state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who had been charged with accepting lavish gifts from businessmen who were in trouble with state regulators.
While it wasn't the only reason they gave, prosecutors specifically cited the dismissal of the case against McDonnell as having left them with no way to pursue the case against Shurtleff.
The members of the Supreme Court sought to cover their philosophical behinds by calling the facts of the case "distasteful" and "tawdry" in a decision that dripped with solicitous concern about the hypothetical damage the case could do to the relationship between politicians and their constituents if were it not overturned. Not overturning McDonnell's conviction, the Court said in effect, would leave the poor beleaguered politicos terrified of - and this is the actual illustration Roberts came up with - leave them terrified of doing anything in response to "homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm" for fear they themselves would be prosecuted for corruption on the grounds that, quoting Roberts again, "the homeowners invited the official to join them on their annual outing to the ballgame."
That this sort of pathetic nonsense is supposed to pass for rational understanding of the real world and the real lives of real people, that it really in its exalted legal analysis equates the influence and power of a rich businessman able to dole out $175,000 in gifts in pursuit of profit with that of a group of homeowners able to afford an "annual outing to the ballgame" is mind-boggling. It serves to bring to mind Anatole France's famous remark that "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal bread."
The court insisted that its decision leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, but lacking evidence of outright, laid-bare bribery, it's hard to see how.
Noah Bookbinder, who is the Executive Director of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, denounced the decision as making it harder to prosecute public officials for their corruption. "The Supreme Court essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their office to the highest bidder. If you want the government to listen to you," he said, "you had better be prepared to pay up."
Because that's how the game is played and the utter failure by the Supreme Court to recognize that, to present McDonnell as having engaged in nothing more than ordinary constituent service, is either appalling ignorance or willful deceit that in either case further entrenches the systematic corruption of money in our political system - with the blessing of the Supreme Court.
And that is an outrage.
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