Opinion | Why the Supreme Court Is Blind to Its Own Corruption

The scandal surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas has further eroded the already record-low public confidence in the Supreme Court. If Chief Justice John Roberts wonders how such a thing could have happened, he might start looking for answers within the cloistered walls of his own courtroom.

Over more than two decades, the Supreme Court has gutted laws aimed at fighting corruption and at limiting the ability of the powerful to enrich public officials in a position to advance their interests. As a result, today wealthy individuals and corporations may buy political access and influence with little fear of legal consequences, either for them or for the beneficiaries of their largess.

No wonder Justice Thomas apparently thought his behavior was no big deal.

He has been under fire for secretly accepting, from the Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, luxury vacations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a real estate deal (involving the home where his mother was living) and the payment of private school tuition for a grandnephew the justice was raising. Meanwhile, over the years, conservative groups with which Mr. Crow was affiliated filed amicus briefs in several matters before the Supreme Court.

That sounds like the very definition of corruption. But over the years, many justices — and not just conservatives — have championed a different definition.

The landmark case is the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. A five-justice majority — including Justice Thomas — struck down decades-old restrictions on independent campaign expenditures by corporations, holding that they violated the companies’ free speech rights. It rejected the argument that such laws were necessary to prevent the damage to democracy that results from unbridled corporate spending and the undue influence it can create.

The government’s legitimate interest in fighting corruption, the court held, is limited to direct quid pro quo deals, in which a public official makes a specific commitment to act in exchange for something of value. The appearance of potentially improper influence or access is not enough.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens accused the majority of adopting a “crabbed view of corruption” that the court itself had rejected in an earlier case. He argued that Congress has a legitimate interest in limiting the effects of corporate money on politics: “Corruption operates along a spectrum, and the majority’s apparent belief that quid pro quo arrangements can be neatly demarcated from other improper influences does not accord with the theory or reality of politics.”

Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending on behalf of political candidates and to the influence that spending necessarily provides. But the decision didn’t come out of nowhere: The court has often been unanimous in its zeal for curtailing criminal corruption laws.

In the 1999 case of United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California, the court unanimously held, in effect, that it is not a violation of the federal gratuities statute for an individual or corporation to have a public official on private retainer. The court rejected a theory known as a “status gratuity,” where a donor showers a public official with gifts over time based on the official’s position (that is in contrast with a more common gratuity, given as a thank you for a particular act by the official). The quite reasonable rationale behind that theory was that when matters of interest to the donor arose, the past gifts (and hope for future ones) might lead the official to favor his or her benefactor.

That actually sounds a lot like the Crow-Thomas relationship. But the court held that such an arrangement is not unlawful. The gratuities law, the court ruled, requires that a particular gift be linked to a particular official act. Without such a direct link, a series of gifts to a public official over time does not violate the statute, even if the goal is to curry favor with an official who could act to benefit the gift giver.

In the wake of Sun-Diamond, federal prosecutors increasingly turned to a more expansive legal theory known as honest services fraud. But in Skilling v. United States, the court ruled that theory is limited to cases of bribes and kickbacks — once again, direct quid pro quo deals. Three justices, including Justice Thomas, wanted to go even further and declare the statute that prohibits honest services fraud unconstitutional.

The court proceeded to limit its “crabbed view of corruption” even further. In the 2016 case McDonnell v. United States, the court held that selling government access is not unlawful. Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his wife, Maureen, accepted about $175,000 in secret gifts from the businessman Jonnie Williams, who wanted Virginia’s public universities to perform research studies on his company’s dietary supplement to assist with its F.D.A. approval. In exchange, Mr. McDonnell asked subordinates to meet with Mr. Williams about such studies and hosted a luncheon at the governor’s mansion to connect him with university health researchers.

A jury convicted the McDonnells on several counts of corruption. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit — hardly known as a bastion of liberalism — unanimously affirmed the convictions. But the Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that the things Mr. McDonnell did for Mr. Williams did not qualify as “official acts” under federal bribery law. Selling official access may be tawdry, the court held, but it is not a crime.

Those who think Justice Thomas may be guilty of corruption may not realize just how difficult the court itself has made it to prove such a case. Now only the most ham-handed officials, clumsy enough to engage in a direct quid pro quo, risk prosecution.

Viewed in light of this history, the Thomas scandal becomes less surprising. Its own rulings would indicate that the Supreme Court doesn’t believe what he did is corrupt. A powerful conservative with interests before the court who regularly provides a justice with vacations worth more than his annual salary is, as the court said in Citizens United, merely the “appearance” of potential corruption. In the court’s view, the public has no reason to be concerned.

But the public clearly is, and should be, concerned over the ability of the rich and powerful to purchase access and influence unavailable to most citizens. Unfortunately, Citizens United is here to stay without a constitutional amendment or an overruling by the court, neither of which is very likely.

But it’s still possible for the rest of the country to move past the court’s naïve and inadequate view of corruption. Congress could amend criminal corruption laws to expand their scope and overturn the results in Sun-Diamond, Skilling and McDonnell. It could increase funding for enforcement of the Ethics in Government Act and increase the penalties for filing a false financial disclosure form (or failing to file one at all). Beefed up disclosure regulations could make it more difficult for officials to hide financial interests and could make it clear there are no disclosure exceptions for enormous gifts of “personal hospitality,” contrary to what Justice Thomas claims he believed. And Congress could pass legislation like the proposed Disclose Act, to require transparency regarding who is behind political donations and spending.

Congress so far has shown little interest in passing such reforms. But that’s where the remedy lies. It’s time for Congress to act.

In his Citizens United dissent, Justice Stevens observed, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” That’s exactly how it now appears to the public — and that applies to Supreme Court justices as well as to politicians.

Randall D. Eliason is the former chief of the fraud and public corruption section at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and teaches white-collar criminal law at George Washington University Law School. He blogs at Sidebarsblog.com.

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