Public corruption cases jeopardized by Supreme Court stalemate

FILE - In this July 27, 2015 file photo, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. speaks to reporters in Union Township, N.J. Attorneys for Menendez argued in court Thursday that the corruption case against him should be dismissed because the grand jury that indicted him was biased, prosecutors used hearsay evidence and salacious material was presented to inflame jurors. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Virginia’s former Gov. Bob McDonnell held out hope that the Supreme Court would wipe out his public corruption conviction and two-year prison sentence.

All was going according to plan — until Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death.

McDonnell was convicted of “accepting $177,000 in loans and lavish gifts in exchange for helping a wealthy donor’s business,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

The convicted Republican governor was sentenced to two years in prison; his wife, Maureen, received a lighter penalty of one year and one day.

McDonnell’s final appeal

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell answers reporters questions. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

After appealing and having his conviction unanimously upheld by a panel of judges on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, McDonnell filed a final appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed in January to hear the case this spring.

McDonnell appeared to have a decent shot at getting a favorable judgment. Then Scalia suffered a fatal heart attack at a private Texas hunting ranch.

The high court has tilted in conservatives’ favor the past few years, with Justice Anthony Kennedy often joining his right-leaning colleagues in their opinions. A mainstay of that winning 5-4 coalition was Scalia.

Scalia stance

Scalia was predicted to be a pro-McDonnell vote, given his past interpretation of statutes defining public corruption.

In the U.S. v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California case (1999), Scalia wrote for the court that public servants aren’t necessarily guilty of receiving bribes just because they accept valuable gifts.

Scalia wrote, in part:

“…The Government must prove a link between a thing of value conferred upon a public official and a specific “official act” for or because of which it was given.”

McDonnell’s legal team can no longer count on Scalia’s sentiment to carry the day.

Mendendez corruption charges

Bob Menendez
FILE – This July 23, 2015 file photo shows Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., on Capitol Hill in Washington. A federal judge threw out four bribery counts in Menendez’s corruption case on Monday, Sept. 28, but rejected claims by Menendez and a co-defendant that prosecutors presented false testimony to grand jurors and misused a law that’s central to the case. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) claims the undesirable distinction of being one of the very few U.S. senators ever to be indicted for bribery while serving in office.

The two-term Democrat’s corruption case stems from Menendez “allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper gifts and campaign contributions as bribes in exchange for using his office to help [Dr. Salomon ]Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and longtime friend and financial backer,” reports Politico.

Menendez contends that the Department of Justice erred in filing charges, arguing that his actions were protected by the “Speech or Debate Clause,” which shields public officials from prosecution if the act in question occurs in the course of their official duties.

The senator’s legal team insists that advocating on behalf of his friend, who happened to lavish him with gifts, falls within the safe zone.

Like McDonnell, the Garden State senator claims he shared a close personal relationship with his benefactor. He told CNN that DOJ lawyers “don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something that is improper.”

Final recourse

McDonnell and Menendez’s defense teams are employing different legal arguments for nuanced circumstances, but the cases could face similar hurdles at the Supreme Court.

Politico reports that McDonnell’s team is likely recalibrating, not panicking. “The former governor’s lawyers may be able to cobble together a group of five justices to back his position, especially since justices’ views on legal issues related to corruption aren’t usually as polarized,” writes Josh Gerstein.

The high court is slated to hear the McDonnell case in the next two months, but could postpone proceedings until its next term, in hopes of having a full bench.

Meanwhile, Sen. Menendez is fighting his case in the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals. If the three-judge panel rules against him, the senator’s case could end up before the Supreme Court down the road.

Republican Senate leaders have vowed not to confirm a Scalia replacement until a new president is elected, leaving the SCOTUS with only eight justices for the foreseeable future.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales

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