Brent M. Brumley | Attorney At Law
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What does Supreme Court ruling mean for federal bribery cases?

On Behalf of | Jul 3, 2024 | Criminal Law |

One of the more controversial decisions the U.S. Supreme Court made in the last days before the justices recessed for the summer involved a former mayor’s bribery case. The 6-3 ruling, however, is likely to affect federal bribery cases across the country. It’s been viewed as weakening federal anti-corruption laws.

The case involved the mayor of a small Indiana city who was convicted five years ago and removed from office of offenses including bribery. Prosecutors said that while he was in office, he made sure that a trucking company got $1 million in contracts. In return, he accepted $13,000 from that company. 

The mayor claimed that the money wasn’t given to him as a bribe but as a “gratuity” for his work in his other job as a consultant after the contracts were awarded. He argued that it wasn’t illegal because there was no quid pro quo arranged before the company secured the contracts.

When are gifts and gratuities “corrupt?”

The conservative majority on the court agreed with his description of the payment as a gratuity and ruled that his conviction was wrongful. In the majority opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “Some gratuities can be problematic. Others are commonplace and might be innocuous. The lines aren’t always clear, especially since many state and local officials have other jobs.” 

Kavanaugh wrote that viewing all gifts and gratuities as corrupt would “create traps for unwary state and local officials” and would “subject 19 million public officials to a new regulatory regime.” The majority opinion did acknowledge that such gifts could be considered illegal under other federal and state laws. Writing for the minority, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson called the former mayor and his team’s interpretation of the federal statute “absurd and atextual.”

The federal statute does leave some room for interpretation. It prohibits local officials from “corruptly” accepting anything valued at over $5,000. The majority of the court determined that the former mayor had not acted corruptly.

While some people have viewed this ruling as placing further limitations on anti-corruption laws, it has likely muddied the waters for both public and private officials. If you have questions or concerns about a gift offered or given to you or if you’re already under investigation, it’s crucial to seek experienced legal guidance.