The Supreme Court Just Legalized Bribery

The Supreme Court just gutted a key federal bribery statute this week, handing down a ruling that allows powerful interests to give gifts to politicians as rewards for favors.

The Supreme Court has been chipping away at federal anti-corruption law for years. (Photo by Robert Alexander / Getty Images)

The Supreme Court just gutted a key federal bribery statute, handing down a ruling on Wednesday in an obscure corruption case that allows powerful interests to give gifts to politicians as rewards for favors.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled 6–3 in Snyder v. United States, overturning the 2019 corruption conviction of an Indiana mayor who pocketed $13,000 from a local business tycoon after ensuring the company got a major town contract. The justices ruled that such bribes were not against the law.

As we reported in March, powerful business groups and conservative think tanks helped engineer the new ruling. The effort was part of a decades-long push by corporate interests to limit the scope of laws prohibiting corruption and bribery.

“It’s shocking, but it’s not surprising that the court came out that way,” said Kedric Payne, vice president at the legal advocacy group Campaign Legal Center. The decision, he said, “makes it harder to go after public corruption — and that’s been the trend of the court for quite some time now.”

Over the last two decades, federal corruption prosecutions have declined precipitously, including under 18 U.S. Code § 666, the statute was used to charge James Snyder, the Indiana mayor at the center of the case. The average number of cases under that statute has halved in recent years, we found this spring.

Wednesday’s ruling delivers a further blow.

Section 666, the bribery law in the case, is a major federal anti-corruption statute, an important tool for white-collar crime prosecutors trying to hold politicians and powerful actors accountable. It’s “the strongest law,” Payne said, for prosecutors trying to go after corruption in cases like Snyder’s.

It’s undisputed that the law criminalizes quid pro quo bribery — giving cash to a politician, for instance, in exchange for an agreed-upon favor.

But the question that Supreme Court justices were deliberating on is whether this statute also covers gratuities, rewards that are given after the fact to a politician as a thank-you for a corrupt action.

In the Snyder case, prosecutors argued the mayor rigged the town procurement process to award two contracts, together worth $1.1 million, to a local garbage truck company. Within weeks, a company executive wrote Snyder a check for $13,000. The executive later testified that the mayor, who was struggling financially at the time, had demanded the money.

Under prosecutors’ interpretation of Section 666, this money was considered an illegal gratuity: the mayor had accepted the gift as a reward for rigging the bids.

But in his opinion for the majority, Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh argued that such corrupt rewards were not, in fact, illegal under Section 666. The law, he wrote, “leaves it to state and local governments to regulate gratuities to state and local officials.”

The ruling is expected to have immediate ramifications for corruption cases nationwide. Earlier this year, a key corruption trial in Chicago was delayed while attorneys waited for the Snyder ruling to come down.

“One of the most interesting things to watch here, I think, is how this will impact all of the pending bribery cases across the country,” wrote Ryan Levitt, a white-collar defense attorney at Chicago-based Benesch Law, in an email. “There are going to be no shortage of appeals.”

Liberal justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan broke from the majority opinion. In her dissent, Jackson wrote that “Snyder’s absurd and atextual reading of the statute is one only today’s Court could love.”

The current Supreme Court has proven to be friendly to the same interests that pushed for a ruling in favor of Snyder. Over the years, the court has similarly limited the scope of other major anti-corruption statutes.

During this same time period, Justice Clarence Thomas was accepting major gifts from his billionaire benefactor Harlan Crow, pushing to limit mandatory disclosure laws, and ruling in favor of the corporate and conservative interests from whom he was receiving lavish gifts.