In a unanimous decision Monday, the Supreme Court vacated the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell.
McDonnell and his wife had been indicted by the federal government for accepting more than $175,000 in gifts and loans from a businessman whose dietary supplement they promoted through arranged meetings and events.
McDonnell was convicted on 11 counts and was sentenced to two years in prison, but had remained free while appealing his conviction. Maureen McDonnell, his wife, was also convicted in the corruption scheme and was sentenced to a year in prison. Her appeal has been on hold while the court determined her husband's fate.
The government had to prove that Robert McDonnell had committed "official acts" in exchange for the gifts, which included a New York shopping spree, more than $5,000 for a monogrammed Rolex, and use of a Ferrari. It was that definition of "official acts" that the high court took issue with in its decision.
"Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event — without more — does not fit that definition of 'official act,'" the Supreme Court held in a decision written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
"There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute," Roberts wrote.
The court said a more limited interpretation of the term “official act” leaves room for prosecuting corruption while not subjecting officials to prosecution — without fair notice — for the most commonplace interactions with constituents.
“Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse," Roberts wrote.
Prosecutors could try to re-prosecute McDonnell under a different standard.
Todd Ruger contributed to this report.