Ex-Governor McDonnell challenges conviction
on Oct 13, 2015 at 7:30 pm
UPDATED Friday 4:28 p.m. The McDonnell v. United States petition has now been docketed as 15-474.
Arguing that the federal prosecution of former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell was unique in the annals of public corruption cases, his attorneys on Tuesday afternoon asked the Supreme Court to overturn his conviction and his two-year prison sentence.
The challenge is based partly on a test of the kind of proof needed for a conviction for taking gifts in return for “official acts,” and partly on a claim that the trial judge failed to probe the impact on potential jurors of the heavy publicity surrounding his case.
The governor, remaining free under a Supreme Court order that delayed his report to prison, was convicted along with his wife of a series of corruption charges over their relationship with a Virginia businessman who sought some forms of state help in launching a commercial product. Mrs. McDonnell’s case is now under review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
“This is the first time in our history,” the governor’s petition argued, “that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scale of any government decision. Officials routinely arrange meetings for donors, take their calls, and politely listen to their ideas.”
In upholding the conviction, the governor’s legal team asserted, the Fourth Circuit “construed ‘official action’ so broadly that it made these commonplace actions federal felonies whenever a jury infers a link to the donor’s contributions. That dramatic expansion of three corruption statutes conflicts with this Court’s decisions, decisions in three other Circuits, and common sense.”
On the publicity question, the petition said that, even though the case was “preceded by a barrage of inflammatory and misleading media coverage that nearly all potential jurors admitting seeing, the district court repeatedly refused to ask them the most basic question: had they already formed opinions about Gov. McDonnell’s guilt as a result?”
The governor’s petition was filed in time for the Court to act on it, depending upon when the Justice Department files its response. That will be due in thirty days, but the Department’s lawyers could ask for an extension of time to file. If the Court were to grant review by some time in January, it could be heard and decided during the current Court Term, which runs through the end of June.