McDonnell v. United States

McDonnell v. United States, 579 U.S. ___ (2016), was a United States Supreme Court case concerning the appeal of former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell's conviction under the Hobbs Act.[1][2] At issue on appeal was whether the definition of "official act" within the federal bribery statutes encompassed the actions for which McDonnell had been convicted and whether the jury had been properly instructed on this definition at trial.[2]

McDonnell v. United States
Argued April 27, 2016
Decided June 27, 2016
Full case nameRobert F. McDonnell, Petitioner v. United States
Docket no.15-474
Citations579 U.S. ___ (more)
136 S. Ct. 2355; 195 L. Ed. 2d 639
Opinion announcementOpinion announcement
Case history
PriorUnited States v. McDonnell, 64 F. Supp. 3d 783 (E.D. Va. 2014); affirmed, 792 F.3d 478 (4th Cir. 2015); cert. granted, 136 S. Ct. 891 (2016).
An "official act" within the federal bribery statutes does not include merely setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Anthony Kennedy · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Samuel Alito · Sonia Sotomayor
Elena Kagan
Case opinion
MajorityRoberts, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Hobbs Act, Honest services fraud

In light of the court's findings, US District Judge T. S. Ellis III of Virginia ruled on an appeal and dropped seven of ten charges for which former Representative William J. Jefferson of New Orleans was convicted in 2012. He ordered him released from prison on October 5, 2017, pending a new sentence or action from the government.[3]

Case backgroundEdit

Anatabloc is a tobacco extract which the company Star Scientific was producing in Virginia. Virginia has been a tobacco-producing state. The governor held events promoting the company's product at his governor's mansion after receiving kickbacks from the company.

McDonnell's case was prosecuted as a federal case even though he was a state governor under the Guarantee Clause of Article IV because state corruption at the governor's level affects the federal union of the states. In addition, there was a conflict of interest at the state level because Ken Cuccinelli, the Attorney General of Virginia at the time, was a prominent ally of the governor.

At the trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, prosecutors charged Robert F. McDonnell and his wife with quid pro quo. The jury found the McDonnells guilty of multiple counts of corruption. James R. Spencer presided over the initial trial.

United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously affirmed the convictions of the McDonnells.

Opinion of the CourtEdit

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the unanimous opinion.[2] McDonnell's conviction was vacated on the grounds that the meaning of "official act" does not include merely setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event.


Narrowed Definition about BriberyEdit

The ruling narrowed the legal definition of public corruption and made it harder for prosecutors to prove that a political official engaged in bribery.[4][5]

According to Bloomberg News, the ruling "appears to have opened the floodgates for reversals of high-profile public corruption cases, including William Jefferson, a former Louisiana congressman. Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; Dean Skelos, a former majority leader of the New York state senate; and Skelos’s son, Adam Skelos, have since had corruption convictions overturned on similar grounds."[5]

Legal CitationsEdit

The ruling in the Supreme Court case was cited by United States District Court for the District of New Jersey for dismissing another federal case against United States Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. The case against Menendez was eventually dismissed.[5]

In the aftermath of the Kids for cash scandal, former President Judge Mark Ciavarella of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas has also cited the Supreme Court ruling in an attempt to overturn his own twenty-eight year sentence in federal prison. The basis for citing the ruling is that it altered the definition of an official act for the crime of bribery.[6] Judge Thomas L. Ambro of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected Ciavarella's appeal. In his opinion, Judge Ambro stated that "Ciavarella’s bribery-related actions still satisfy even a post-McDonnell understanding of ‘official act.’ If sentencing hundreds of juvenile offenders to excessive terms of incarceration is not an ‘official act,’ then nothing is.”[7]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ SCOTUSblog coverage
  2. ^ a b c McDonnell v. United States, No. 15-474, 579 U.S. ___ (2016).
  3. ^ Greg La Rose, "William Jefferson ordered released from prison after judge drops 7 of 10 counts", New Orleans Times-Picayune, 5 October 2017. Retrieved 7 October 2017
  4. ^ "Corruption Case Against Senator Menendez Ends in Mistrial". The New York Times. 2017-11-16. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-06-06.
  5. ^ a b c "Menendez Judge Suggests He May Dismiss Senator's Bribe Counts". 2017-10-11. Retrieved 2018-06-06.
  6. ^ D'Annunzio, P. J. (August 8, 2017). "Ciavarella Wants to Use 'McDonnell' in Acquittal Bid". The Legal Intelligencer. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  7. ^ D'Annunzio, P.J. (March 29, 2019). "Doctor: 3rd Circuit Denies Incarcerated 'Kids-for-Cash' Judge Ciavarella's Bid for New Trial". Retrieved 2009-06-22.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)

Further readingEdit

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