Supreme Court Narrows Reach Of Federal Corruption Law

The Supreme Court sided on Wednesday with a former mayor of an Indiana city who faced a bribery conviction, delivering a ruling that could make it harder for federal prosecutors to bring corruption cases against state and local officials.

The justices ruled 6-3 to reverse a lower court’s decision that had upheld the corruption conviction of former Portage mayor James Snyder. Snyder had accepted $13,000 from a truck company that received over $1 million in contracts during his time in office.

The court’s conservative justices formed the majority in the ruling, authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, while its liberal members dissented. Federal prosecutors charged Snyder with corruptly soliciting a payment in connection with government contracts, a crime carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. A jury convicted Snyder, and a judge sentenced him to one year and nine months in prison.

“The question in this case is whether federal law makes it a crime for state and local officials to accept gratuities—such as gift cards, lunches, plaques, books, framed photos, or similar items—that may be given as a token of appreciation after the official act,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The answer is no.”

In 2013, while Snyder served as mayor, Portage awarded two contracts to local truck company Great Lakes Peterbilt for the purchase of five trash trucks, totaling around $1.1 million. The next year, Peterbilt paid Snyder $13,000, which Snyder claimed was a consulting fee for his work with the company. Kavanaugh noted that Portage, a city in northwest Indiana with approximately 38,000 residents, apparently allows local public officials to obtain outside employment.

The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected Snyder’s argument that the federal crime at issue outlaws bribery but not gratuities, prompting Snyder to appeal to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh wrote in Wednesday’s ruling that the federal corruption law “leaves it to state and local governments to regulate gratuities to state and local officials.” He added that federal law “does not supplement those state and local rules by subjecting 19 million state and local officials to up to 10 years in federal prison for accepting even commonplace gratuities.”

In a dissent written by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s liberal justices expressed concern over how the ruling could undermine efforts to combat public corruption. Jackson wrote, “The government has not used the statute as a dragnet against permissible conduct, but rather to prosecute serious cases that involve exactly the type of palm greasing that the statute plainly covers and that one might reasonably expect Congress to care about when targeting graft in state, local, and tribal governments. After today, however, the ability of the federal government to prosecute such obviously wrongful conduct is left in doubt.”

Last year, the court overturned the bribery conviction of an ex-aide to Democratic former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a ruling that also limited the ability of federal prosecutors to pursue corruption cases.