Supreme Court ruling on Indiana mayor is latest to weaken corruption laws

The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the bribery conviction of a former Indiana mayor, a decision that continues a recent trend of justices narrowing the scope of corruption laws targeting public officials.

In a closely divided 6-3 decision that broke along ideological lines, the vast conservative majority held that the federal law used by prosecutors to convict James Snyder only applies to situations in which officials agree gifts before acting by the government – ​​and not to obtaining a reward afterwards, which is what is called a gratification.

The decision drew sharp criticism from Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who, in a dissent joined by his liberal colleagues, said that “Snyder’s absurd and atextual reading of the law is a reading that only the Today’s court can like ‘.

Snyder, while the Republican The mayor of Portage, Indiana, received $13,000 from a local trucking company after the city purchased five garbage trucks from the company for $1.1 million in 2013. Prosecutors later indicted Snyder, alleging the payment was intended to direct the company’s business.

Snyder was charged under a federal bribery law that makes it a crime for state and local officials to “corruptly” solicit or accept “anything of value from any person, with the intent to be influenced or rewarded” for an official act. Federal officials have argued that the law applies to gratuities.

The former mayor, who has maintained his innocence, claimed the payment was made for consultancy work. A federal jury convicted Snyder of accepting an illegal gratuity and sentenced him to nearly two years in prison.

Snyder appealed his conviction, arguing that the law used to convict him only applies to bribes paid before an act, not gratuities given afterward. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld Snyder’s conviction, but the Supreme Court sided with Snyder.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh held that Congress narrowly tailored the particular law to apply to bribery, saying lawmakers left it up to state and local authorities to regulate gratuities.

Kavanaugh said the government’s interpretation of the law would “radically upend the rules on gratuities” and turn the federal law into “a vague and unfair trap for 19 million state and local employees.”

Reading his opinion from the bench, Kavanaugh explained that the government had not defined how to distinguish harmless gratuities, such as a parent giving a teacher an end-of-year gift, from those that were contrary to the law. ethical, even criminal.

States and local governments regulate gratuities in various ways. Some states allow public officials to accept gifts that fall below a certain threshold, while others prohibit public officials from accepting gifts for specific activities such as speaking engagements. Many states provide exemptions for gifts from friends and family, travel reimbursements, and ceremonial gifts such as honorary degrees.

Federal law prohibits gratuities for federal employees.

Keith Thirion, vice-president of Alliance for Justice, said the decision was painful.

“The conservative justices’ ruling that it should be easier for public officials to receive gifts is perhaps the least surprising outcome of the term,” Thirion said, whose organization is made up of liberal groups that work on court-related issues, said in a statement. “While expressing concern about corruption, the Court has just given the green light by authorizing ex post payments in the form of rewards called ‘tips’. »

Lisa Blatt, Snyder’s attorney, declined to comment.

The move is the latest by the court to make it more difficult to prosecute government officials over corruption allegations.

In 2020, the high court overturned the convictions of allies of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) who were prosecuted for retaliating against a political rival in the scandal known as “Bridgegate.” A court unanimously ruled that the law under which the officials were prosecuted required that they seek money or property, not revenge.

In 2016, the Supreme Court overturned the public corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), creating a higher bar for federal prosecutors who wish to bring such charges.

The Supreme Court also must decide whether the federal government can charge hundreds of Jan. 6 rioters with an obstruction charge and whether former President Donald Trump can claim immunity in his federal election interference case .

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