The Ex-Virginia Governor's Overturned Conviction

The Supreme Court vacated Bob McDonnell’s 2014 corruption conviction in a unanimous decision Monday.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (Jonathan Ernst)

The Supreme Court on Monday overturned the corruption convictions of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell in a unanimous decision.

McDonnell, a Republican, and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, were indicted on federal corruption charges in January 2014, near the end of his gubernatorial term.

Prosecutors accused the couple of accepting more than $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other perks in exchange for promoting a dietary-supplement business and its owner, Jonnie Williams, while McDonnell was in office. McDonnell left the governor’s palace a month later, and the couple were convicted in September of that year after a five-week-long trial. Bob McDonnell was found guilty of all 11-corruption-related counts against him. Maureen McDonnell was found guilty of eight corruption-related charges and one count of obstruction of justice.

The McDonnells faced decades in prison for the crimes, but received far less when they were sentenced in January and February of this year, respectively: two years for the former governor, and one year for this wife.

McDonnell v. United States focused on the question of what constitutes “official action” under federal corruption statutes. The prosecution said McDonnell knowingly took “official action” to receive bribes, and the jury’s verdict supported that. McDonnell argued that “merely arranging a meeting, attending an event, hosting a reception, or making a speech are not, standing alone, ‘official acts.’” When the Supreme Court agreed to hear McDonnell’s appeal this spring, the justices considered whether the federal government’s definition of “official acts”—the one that was provided to the jury—applied to the governor’s case. In their ruling, the eight justices said Monday that interpretation could raise “significant constitutional concerns”:

Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. Representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns. The Government’s position could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships. …

Given the Court’s interpretation of “official act,” the District Court’s jury instructions were erroneous, and the jury may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful. Because the errors in the jury instructions are not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the Court vacates Governor McDonnell’s convictions.

Read the full decision here.

The Supreme Court’s decision means McDonnell could be retried. The politician is the first governor in Virginia history to be charged and convicted of a crime.

McDonnell thanked the justices in a statement Monday. “From the outset, I strongly asserted my innocence before God and under the law,” he said. “I have not, and would not, betray the sacred trust the people of Virginia bestowed upon me during 22 years of elected office.”

The ruling was among the final three opinions released by the Court on Monday before its summer recess. In Voisine v. United States, the justices upheld restrictions on gun buyers with a known history of domestic abuse. In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, they struck down a Texas law that would have closed dozens of abortion clinics in the state.