Supreme Court overturns ex-mayor’s bribery conviction, narrowing the scope of public corruption law

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court overturned the bribery conviction of a former Indiana mayor on Wednesday, the latest in a series of decisions narrowing the scope of federal public corruption law.

The high court's 6-3 opinion along ideological lines found the law criminalizes bribes given before an official act, not rewards handed out after.

“Some gratuities can be problematic. Others are commonplace and might be innocuous,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote. The lines aren't always clear, especially since many state and local officials have other jobs, he said.

The high court sided with James Snyder, a Republican who was convicted of taking $13,000 from a trucking company after prosecutors said he steered about $1 million worth of city contracts to the company.

In a sharply worded dissent joined by her liberal colleagues, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said the distinction between bribes and gratuities ignores the wording of the law aimed at rooting out public corruption.

“Snyder's absurd and atextual reading of the statute is one that only today's court could love,” she wrote.

The decision continues a pattern in recent years of the court restricting the government’s ability to use broad federal laws to prosecute public corruption cases. The justices also overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2016 and sharply curbed prosecutors’ use of an anti-fraud law in the case of ex-Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling in 2010.

The decision also comes as the Supreme Court itself has faced sustained criticism over undisclosed trips and gifts from wealthy benefactors to some justices that led the high court to adopt its first code of ethics, though it lacks an enforcement mechanism.

Snyder was elected mayor of Portage, a small Indiana city near Lake Michigan, in 2011 and was removed from office when he was first convicted in 2019. He has maintained his innocence, saying the money he received was payment for consulting work. His attorneys said that prosecutors hadn’t proved there was a “quid pro quo” exchange agreement before the contracts were awarded.

The Justice Department countered that the law was clearly meant to cover gifts “corruptly” given to public officials as rewards for favored treatment.

Kavanaugh, writing for the high court majority, disagreed, finding that interpretation would "create traps for unwary state and local officials" and would “subject 19 million public officials to a new regulatory regime," though he said a gratuity could be unethical or illegal under other laws.


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