The Supreme Court last week narrowed the scope of the honest services law, which makes it fraud to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” The law was used to convict everyone from lobbyist Jack Abramoff (out of prison and working at a pizzeria of all places), to U.S. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana (who hid $90,000 in his freezer of all places.)
The honest services law was also used to convict several of our inductees — including Jeffrey Skilling of Enron and Conrad Black, both of whom had their cases reviewed and sent back to the lower courts. In its ruling, the Supreme Court deemed the honest services law unconstitutionally vague and limited its scope to bribes and kickbacks. While Skilling and Black certainly used unsavory methods to line their pockets, it’s up to lower courts to decide whether some or all of their charges should be dropped.
So how will this play out? There’s been a lot of buzz about the wisdom of the court’s decision; a former U.S. attorney general described it to NPR as a “real cutback,” while an editorial in The Washington Post noted that the law was unclear and imprecise and “deserved to be struck down.”
Beyond the impact of the court’s ruling on future cases of gross misconduct (the honest-services law has been widely described as a favored tool of prosecutors), people are wondering what this means for Skilling, Black, and others.
Skilling, who was convicted on 19 counts, is unlikely to be “home free” even if his honest-services charge is dropped, noted a lawyer on a Wall Street Journal blog. As for Black, the high court agreed that his jury was given improper instructions to determine whether he was guilty of fraud. Black’s lawyer plans to seek bail, reports the Chicago Tribune. But, like Skilling, he was convicted on other charges; there’s the little matter of obstruction of justice — the 13 boxes of evidence that Black was caught on tape removing from his office.
What do you think of the ruling? Do you think it was too vague and used too freely (even to ensnare crooks)? Or do you think the Supreme Court has dealt a serious blow to the prosecution of the greedy and corrupt? Weigh in with a comment!