Politicial Bribes

Supreme Court Apologizes, It Just Can’t Help Fight Political Corruption

By setting aside the criminal convictions resulting from the Bridgegate scandal, the Court is adopting a worldview that is unbearably bleak.

Lea Millis

About the Author: Leah Litman is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.

Public corruption has already had a good year, and now the Supreme Court has given it a big boost. A unanimous Supreme Court yesterday overturned criminal convictions resulting from the so-called Bridgegate scandal, when assistants to then-governor Chris Christie ordered the realignment of the bridge’s tracks to injure Christie’s political opponent.

In the decision, Kelly c. United States, the Court did not deny that this is what happened; instead, he concluded that this conduct did not violate any federal law. In a sense, then, the court admitted that this kind of partisan hacking is exactly how politics works. Perhaps the most terrible part is that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: By endorsing this grim worldview, the court has made it even harder to prevent corruption – and it is doing it. At the same time, many government officials embraced corruption as their way of governing.

Kelly began when then Governor Christie’s administration decided to realign the toll lanes in New Jersey leading to the George Washington Bridge. Three lanes were long reserved for commuters coming from the town where the bridge entrance is located: Fort Lee. But the port authority, without warning, reduced that number to one for a period of four days. The public officials who ordered the change publicly stated that they were conducting a traffic study; in fact, the court explained, “they did it for a political reason – to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to support the bid for re-election as governor of New Jersey.”

The court unanimously ruled that these actions were not criminal under federal law, as officials did not get any money or property when they realigned the toll lanes. All they did, the court observed, was exercise their governmental authority on the grounds of corruption and fraud. Although officials used the time and money of government employees to carry out the realignment plan, that time and money was not the purpose of the plan. What the officials really wanted was to use the power of government for partisan purposes – to make life more difficult for their political opponent’s voters. And that, the court concluded, is not a federal crime.

The Court’s desire to allow public officials to get away with recognized acts of corruption is nothing new. The Court has previously ‚and unanimously‚ overturned the conviction of the former governor of Virginia, who granted access to meetings in exchange for political donations. Again, the court conceded that this is how government works: even though the acts were “unpleasant,” the court said the prosecution “could throw a veil of potential prosecution over” much of the way. which the court believed the government to work, namely, distributing access for political favors.

These decisions unanimously concluded that federal criminal law does not currently prohibit the conduct of defendants. Could Congress therefore pass a law criminalizing this kind of behavior? It is not clear, nor does the Court seem to like this idea. In the case involving the governor of Virginia, for example, the court suggested that there were “significant constitutional issues” with the federal government’s attempt to prosecute a government official for accepting a bribe. , which the Court considered to be ordinary, if not inappropriate, government conduct.

Such statements are not mere abstractions. Court conservatives struck down several laws designed to tackle public corruption on the grounds that money in politics is not just how government works, but perhaps even enshrined in the Constitution. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down federal limits on corporate campaign spending. The federal government argued that the limits were necessary to reduce quid pro quo corruption and the appearance of corruption; the majority rejected the idea that large campaign spending gave rise to appearances of corruption. In a later decision, McCutcheon v. FEC, the court struck down related blanket limits on campaign contributions that were designed to prevent super-rich people from buying political favors, among other things.

Part of what is striking about the Court’s decision in the Bridgegate scandal is that it comes at a time of very public government corruption that puts the health and safety of Americans at risk during a dangerous pandemic. Take the press conference where the President claimed he asked Vice President Mike Pence not to respond to appeals from ungrateful governors. Or when he claimed to send fans in Colorado because of Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who is set to fight for re-election this year. Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer alleged that the federal government encouraged companies not to provide any support to the state. The President and Senator Mitch McConnell have openly acknowledged that their views on coronavirus relief programs are based on whether states in need are run by Democrats or Republicans. And the Justice Department is now refusing to prosecute the president’s official national security adviser for lying to the federal government and working secretly for a foreign government.

According to the theory adopted by the Supreme Court yesterday, this is how politics works, and Americans should accept it. In the opinion of the Court, government officials do not act in the national interest and are not obliged to do so. Instead, they can grant access to government officials and exercise regulatory authority to distribute political favors. The Court recognized that these decisions “endangered the safety” of individuals. But again, in the opinion of the Court, this is only politics.

This may be how politics works today, but it is not and should not be how politics will work tomorrow. Yet the Supreme Court has made it more difficult for the country to do so tomorrow. In the other, incredibly minor opinion, which the Court issued on the same day as Kelly, the Court observed that “[C]our responsibilities are essentially passive instruments of government. Perhaps this statement should have been part of Bridgegate’s opinion, as the Court has remained inactive and allowed officials to plunder our government for partisan purposes.

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