From left: Attorney Robert Trout, former Rep. William Jefferson and his wife, Andrea Jefferson, speak to the press following Jefferson's conviction on corruption charges in 2009. Jefferson is appealing based on the judge's definition of key legal terms.
His attorneys also take issue with the fact that jurors were told a quid pro quo scheme could be established even if Jefferson only performed those acts on an “as-needed basis.”
Because Jefferson arranged meetings between private companies with foreign governments on his own time and they did not relate to the Congressman’s formal legislative duties, he was not engaged in an official act that falls under the bribery statute prosecutors used to secure his conviction, Jefferson’s lead appellate counsel, Lawrence S. Robbins, argued Friday.
“Whether or not this court reverses the conviction ... turns on whether the instructions given to the jury ... were manifestly incorrect,” Robbins said during his argument.
The judges seemed largely skeptical of the former Congressman’s legal argument that his actions were not related to his official duties. They took turns posing hypothetical situations about actions that are widely thought to be the duties of a lawmaker but are not explicitly defined by rule or law.
“Does a Congressman have a binding duty to vote ... where is that [written]?” Judge Allyson Duncan asked.
“You’d say that once they leave the Capitol building nothing falls under this statute, is this true?” Judge Robert King asked.
Robbins said yes.
Government prosecutors argued that Congress wrote the bribery statute to be intentionally broad lest too many misdeeds fall outside its scope.
“The argument that I think the U.S. attorney is making is that this would open us up to the possibilities of public corruption or insulate against that behavior,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “And that’s a strong argument to make — there’s a sensitivity to public corruption cases.”
The 4th Circuit typically takes about two months to release its written opinion, attorneys say. At that point, Jefferson could ask for a re-hearing before the full court if he is unsatisfied with the outcome. If that request is denied, he could ask the Supreme Court to hear his appeal, though it would be statistically unlikely that the high court would take the case.
Decisions of the 4th Circuit set a precedent for federal courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.