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U.S. Supreme Court McDonnell Decision Underscores Need for Reform

Brennan Center experts say the ruling underscores the need for reform, including reasonable limits on both personal gifts and campaign contributions.

June 27, 2016

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously vacated former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2015 corruption conviction on statutory grounds.

While the Court condemned McDonnell’s behavior and left open the possibility that he could again be convicted after a new trial, it concluded that the trial court’s instructions to the jury did not provide adequate guidance on the definition of the term “official act” in the federal bribery statute. The Court’s narrow ruling made no mention of McDonnell’s claim that his conduct was protected by the First Amendment, but in remanding for further proceedings the Court implicitly rejected that argument.

“The Supreme Court has never held – and the Framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment did not intend – that elected public officials have a constitutional right to use their office to promote private business goals in exchange for money,” said Daniel I. Weiner, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Today’s ruling, however narrow, underscores that federal bribery law is not enough to protect the integrity of our democracy. Other common-sense protections, including reasonable limits on both personal gifts and campaign contributions, are absolutely essential.”

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer US LLP filed an amicus brief in the case.

View the Brennan Center’s case page.

Read more about the Brennan Center’s work on money in politics.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Rebecca Autrey at or 646–292–8316.