In a brief to the high court, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell and Department of Justice Attorney Sonja M. Ralston wrote that McDonnell’s conviction was based on the “unexceptionable proposition” that an official who takes personal benefits to influence government matters is guilty of corruption.
Digging deep into the facts of the case, the lawyers argued that the evidence at trial “amply supported” the jury’s verdict and that McDonnell’s lofty rhetoric about why his conviction should be overturned was incorrect.
“Petitioner is quite wrong to assert that the decision turns ‘nearly every elected official into a felon’ by criminalizing routine political fundraising,” they wrote. “The court of appeals held that petitioner’s conduct was criminal because he entered into a quid pro quo agreement to use his position to influence government matters on behalf of his benefactor. Such conduct is neither common nor protected by the First Amendment — and a decision confirming that it is unlawful breaks no new ground.”
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted last year of using the governor’s office to help businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. promote his dietary supplement company. Prosecutors argued — and jurors agreed — that the governor ran afoul of federal law in aiding Williams while the businessman lavished him and his family with $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods.
Robert McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison; his wife was sentenced to a year and a day. They appealed their convictions separately, and Robert McDonnell’s appeal is the first to have made it to the Supreme Court, having been rejected at each lower step. (His wife’s case, which is still with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, has been put on hold pending action by the Supreme Court.
Whether the Supreme Court will take up McDonnell’s challenge remains a mystery. The court receives about 10,000 petitions like McDonnell’s each year and hears oral arguments in only 75 or 80, according to information on the court’s website. McDonnell, though, might have more reason for optimism than most. In August, the court allowed him to keep his freedom with his case pending — an indication that the judges found there was a “reasonable probability” that they would accept the case and a “fair prospect” that a majority would overturn the lower court’s decision.
In their petition urging the Supreme Court to take up his case, McDonnell’s attorneys argued that he never used the power of his office to aid Williams and that allowing his conviction to stand would make criminals out of virtually every politician in America. They asserted that what McDonnell actually did for Williams did not constitute “official action” — as prosecutors were required to prove — but was instead “limited to routine political courtesies: arranging meetings, asking questions and attending events.”