The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s appeal of corruption charges, setting the stage for a significant review of federal bribery statutes.
The court granted certiorari in McDonnell v. United States, which means the case will be argued this spring with a decision likely by the end of June.
McDonnell was sentenced in 2014 to two years in prison on charges that he took “official acts” in exchange for more than $175,000 in gifts and cash from a wealthy businessman. He argued in his petition, filed by Noel Francisco of Jones Day, that the actions were “routine political courtesies” such as suggesting meetings or attending events. McDonnell also claimed his trial judge inadequately screened potential jurors for bias caused by massive pretrial publicity. But the court indicated it would not take up that issue.
The high court already gave McDonnell a boost in August when it stayed the start of his prison sentence pending his petition for certiorari.
The appeal attracted friend-of-the-court briefs on McDonnell’s behalf on both issues raised by the case.
One brief filed by Wyatt Durrette Jr., partner at DurretteCrump in Richmond on behalf of civil rights leaders, focused on the jury-selection issue, arguing that in a social-media age of “overwhelmingly prejudicial pretrial publicity,” minorities’ chances for a fair trial are jeopardized unless the judge conducts “penetrating void dire” to ferret out potential bias.
Another brief was filed on behalf of former federal officials from both parties, including former Bush administration solicitor general Theodore Olson, Republican attorneys general John Ashcroft and Michael Mukasey, and White House lawyers during every presidency since Ronald Reagan, including Democrats Lanny Davis, John Quinn and Gregory Craig, who was President Barack Obama’s first counsel, and Republicans Fred Fielding and C. Boyden Gray.
If the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to uphold McDonnell’s conviction stands, the federal officials’ brief argues, then “commonplace exchanges would be grounds for federal bribery prosecutions.” One example offered in the brief came from the 2012 presidential campaign, when “a $10,000 contribution secured a photo opportunity with either Governor Romney or President Obama.” Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner David Debold was counsel of record.
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. defended the prosecution, asserting that McDonnell’s actions were clearly aimed at “influencing government decisions” that might have affected the businessman’s interests. Upholding that standard, Verrilli said, “poses no threat to legitimate political activity.”