WASHINGTON — U.S. Supreme Court justices were highly skeptical of federal bribery laws Wednesday during oral arguments over former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s corruption conviction, but they have multiple options to consider before a ruling is expected in the case this summer.
The Supreme Court could uphold Bob McDonnell’s conviction for taking more than $170,000 in loans, designer dresses, trips and other gifts from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams. Or the court could overturn the verdict, or send it back to the lower courts for a new trial. But the law used to prosecute McDonnell could also be in jeopardy.
So what happens next? WTOP analyzed the possible outcomes based on three potential Supreme Court rulings.
Possible Outcome 1: Supreme Court upholds conviction
If the court upholds the conviction, McDonnell would soon have to begin serving a two-year prison sentence. The appeal by his wife, Maureen, of her own convictions could then continue in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond. Maureen McDonnell would likely need to pursue a different legal tack — one not addressed in the Supreme Court’s eventual decision.
Like her husband, Maureen McDonnell has remained free during the appeals process. She was sentenced to one year and one day in prison.
Possible Outcome 2: Supreme Court sends case back for new trial or arguments
The arguments Wednesday included several suggested ways that Bob McDonnell could win a new trial. McDonnell’s lawyer, Noel Francisco, focused on arguments that the jury instructions were overly broad, and that the conviction would criminalize routine political activity and give too much discretion to prosecutors to decide what is or is not legal.
Francisco also argued that prosecutors failed to prove their case.
Seven of the eight justices (as is common, Justice Clarence Thomas did not ask a question) asked both sides what the legal standard should be in order to criminalize actual corruption while not barring routine activities of elected officials, such as sending a letter on behalf of a constituent.
“What should we write as the words that describe the criminal activity?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked.
“They won’t be perfect [and could] fail to catch some crooks,” Breyer said. But he noted the importance of striking the right balance of power.
If the court finds that the jury instructions were faulty and wrongly led to McDonnell’s conviction, the case could be sent back for a new trial in U.S. District Court in Richmond.
Possible Outcome 3: Supreme Court tosses the corruption law entirely
Chief Justice John Roberts asked in arguments Wednesday whether the court might have been “unwise” to find the corruption law constitutional several years ago.
There were three votes at the time to throw it out entirely, he said.
If the law used to convict McDonnell were to be ruled unconstitutional, the former governor’s convictions would be tossed.
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben argued that voiding McDonnell’s convictions could sanction a pay-to-play system (outside of campaign contributions) for basic access to government officials.
If the justices rule in favor of McDonnell, prosecutors will have to decide whether to push forward with a new trial on the existing or remaining counts.