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Federal Criminal Law

McDonnell v. United States - Post-Decision SCOTUScast

SCOTUScast 7-12-16 featuring Gregory G. Katsas
Gregory G. Katsas July 12, 2016

On June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court decided McDonnell v. United States. Robert F. McDonnell, former Governor of Virginia, was convicted in a jury trial of eleven counts of corruption. During the trial prosecutors sought to prove that McDonnell and his wife Maureen, while he was Governor, accepted money and lavish gifts in exchange for efforts to assist a Virginia company in securing state university testing of a dietary supplement the company had developed. The McDonnells, prosecutors argued, took “official action” on behalf of the company in exchange for money, campaign contributions, or other things of value, in violation of various federal statutes. Robert McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed McDonnell’s conviction, but the U.S. Supreme Court granted his request to remain out of prison pending resolution of his case.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether “official action” under the controlling fraud statutes is limited to exercising actual governmental power, threatening to exercise such power, or pressuring others to exercise such power, and whether the jury must be so instructed; or, if not so limited, whether the Hobbs Act and honest-services fraud statute are unconstitutional.

By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Fourth Circuit and remanded the case. Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court, holding that  “an official act' is a decision or action on a 'question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.' The 'question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy' must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee. It must also be something specific and focused that is 'pending' or 'may by law be brought' before a public official. To qualify as an 'official act,' the public official must make a decision or take an action on that 'question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,' or agree to do so.” Given that the lower courts applied too broad an interpretation of the term “official act,” the Chief Justice explained, the jury instructions were erroneous and it may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that was not unlawful. The Court therefore vacated his convictions and remanded the case for a determination as to whether there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict Governor McDonnell of committing or agreeing to commit an “official act”--and thus allow for a new trial--or whether the charges against him must be dismissed. 

To discuss the case, we have Gregory G. Katsas, who is Partner at Jones Day.

Woods v. Etherton - Post-Decision SCOTUScast

SCOTUScast featuring Ronald Eisenberg 5-31-16
Ronald Eisenberg May 31, 2016

On April 4, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Woods v. Etherton without oral argument.

Timothy Etherton was convicted in Michigan state court of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and the conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. His efforts to obtain post-conviction relief in state court--which related to his lawyer’s failure to raise a Confrontation Clause objection to the admission into evidence of the anonymous tip that led to his arrest--were rejected. A federal district court also rejected Etherton’s subsequent attempt to obtain federal habeas relief, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed that judgment. Etherton’s appellate counsel had been constitutionally ineffective, the Sixth Circuit concluded, and no fairminded jurist could conclude otherwise. 

By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit in a per curiam opinion issued without oral argument. Without reaching the Sixth Circuit’s holding that counsel had been constitutionally ineffective, the Supreme Court indicated that the Sixth Circuit had failed to apply the appropriate, deferential standard of review required under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. With that in mind the Supreme Court explained, it would not be objectively unreasonable for a fair-minded judge to conclude that counsel’s failure to raise a Confrontation Clause objection to admission of the anonymous tip was due not to incompetence, but because the facts in the tip were uncontested and in any event consistent with Etherton’s defense.

To discuss the case, we have Ronald Eisenberg, who is Deputy District Attorney, Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

Ocasio v. United States - Post-Decision SCOTUScast

SCOTUScast 5-16-16 featuring Timothy O'Toole
Timothy P. O'Toole May 16, 2016

On May 2, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Ocasio v. United States. Former police officer Samuel Ocasio challenged his conviction under the Hobbs Act for conspiracy to commit extortion, which arose from an alleged kickback scheme under which police officers funneled wrecked automobiles to a particular repair shop in exchange for monetary payments. He was charged with obtaining money from the shop owners under color of official right and of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act. The District Court rejected Ocasio’s argument that a Hobbs Act conspiracy requires proof that the alleged conspirators agreed to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy. He was convicted on all counts and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions. The question before the Supreme Court was whether a conspiracy to commit extortion requires that the conspirators agree to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy.

By a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Fourth Circuit. Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that a defendant may be convicted of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act based on proof that he reached an agreement with the owner of the property in question to obtain that property under color of official right. Justice Alito’s opinion was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts joined.

To discuss the case, we have Timothy O’Toole, who is a Lawyer at Miller & Chevalier.

McDonnell v. United States - Post-Argument SCOTUScast

SCOTUScast 5-13-16 featuring William Haun
William J. Haun May 13, 2016

On April 27, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in McDonnell v. United States. Robert F. McDonnell, former Governor of Virginia, was convicted in a jury trial of eleven counts of corruption.  During the trial, prosecutors sought to prove that McDonnell and his wife Maureen while he was Governor, accepted money and lavish gifts in exchange for efforts to assist a Virginia company in securing state university testing of a dietary supplement the company had developed. The McDonnells, prosecutors argued, took “official action” on behalf of the company in exchange for money, campaign contributions, or other things of value, in violation of various federal statutes.  Robert McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed McDonnell’s conviction, but the U.S. Supreme Court granted his request to remain out of prison until the Court resolves his appeal.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether “official action” under the controlling fraud statutes is limited to exercising actual governmental power, threatening to exercise such power, or pressuring others to exercise such power, and whether the jury must be so instructed; or, if not so limited, whether the Hobbs Act and honest-services fraud statute are unconstitutional.

To discuss the case, we have William J. Haun, who is an associate at Hunton & Williams, LLP.