Campaign donations convictions stand
Staying out of the increasingly controversial use of the criminal law to police political campaign donations, the Supreme Court chose on Monday to leave undisturbed the convictions of an ex-governor and a campaign contributor who sought to test the issue anew. The action had no direct connection to the recent case of the failed criminal prosecution of former presidential candidate John Edwards, but that case has added to the legal controversy. The Court took no action Monday on any of the seven new cases filed by Guantanamo Bay prisoners, leaving those to be rescheduled.
The Court granted review of one new case, Bailey v. United States (docket 11-770), that will clarify the authority of police to detain a suspect while they are waiting to carry out a search warrant. The specific issue is whether police may hold a suspect who has left the place where a search is to be carried out, and is then kept in custody until the search is completed. Federal and state courts are split on the issue, which involves the interpretation of the Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Michigan v. Summers.
The Justices’ denial of review of cases involving former Alabama governor Don Eugene Siegelman and former Alabama hospital executive Richard M. Scrushy probably brings to an end their challenge to convictions over Scrushy’s contribution of $500,000 to the governor’s office to support a ballot measure for an education-funding lottery in the state. Prosecutors contended that the donation came in return for the governor’s decision to give Scrushy a continuing appointment to a state board that determined the number of health-care facilities operating in the state.
The two had taken their cases to the Supreme Court two years ago, making the same pleas for the Court to provide new guidance on when a campaign contribution may be treated as a crime, when prosecutors have not proved an explicit agreement to trade a public action for an election campaign donation. At that time, the Court sent their case back to the Eleventh Circuit Court, to take into account the Court’s decision that year limiting the scope of the federal law against fraud by public officials. The Eleventh Circuit, after its new review, once again upheld most of the convictions, but ordered new sentencing.
Scrushy has been given a new sentence of 70 months in prison — a year shorter than his prior sentence. Siegelman is awaiting a new sentence. Previously, the former governor had originally been given a sentence of 88 months.
In their new petitions, Siegelman and Scrushy contended that a 1991 Supreme Court decision, McCormick v. United States, required proof of an explicit promise by an official to take some government action in return for a campaign contribution. That ruling came under the federal extortion law, the Hobbs Act, but the new petitions urged the Court to extend that limitation to federal bribery and fraud laws, as well. The Justice Department opposed Supreme Court review of the cases of Siegelman v. United States (11-955) and Scrushy v. United States (11-972). Justice Kagan apparently stayed out of consideration of the petitions because of her former role as U.S. Solicitor General; it was during her tenure there that the case had developed earlier.
Besides turning aside those cases, the Justices on Monday refused to hear an appeal by four former private security guards seeking to head off trial on criminal charges for their alleged roles in a gun battle with Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007, when they were providing protection under State Department contract with the Blackwater security firm. The petition in Slough v. United States (11-591) asked the Court to clarify what use prosecutors may make of evidence obtained by compelling a government worker or contractor to give a potentially incriminating statement. The guards were interviewed after the incident and, they contended, the statements they gave were used by prosecutors in deciding to pursue charges against them. Their case was not yet final, since the D.C. Circuit Court has ordered a District Court judge to examine more closely whether the government’s evidence of a crime was obtained independently of the statements the guards gave during their interviews.
At their private Conference last Thursday, the Justices were scheduled to take their first look at seven new cases in which Guantanamo detainees are challenging the D.C. Circuit Court’s handling of a series of cases over government detention power. The Court, however, did not act on any of the seven on Monday. That does not mean anything conclusive about whether the Court will at some point grant or deny any of the cases.