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Law School Case Brief

McCormick v. United States - 500 U.S. 257, 111 S. Ct. 1807 (1991)


Political contributions are vulnerable if induced by the use of force, violence, or fear. The receipt of such contributions is also vulnerable under the Hobbs Act ("Act"), 18 U.S.C.S. § 1951, as having been taken under color of official right, but only if the payments are made in return for an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not to perform an official act. In such situations the official asserts that his official conduct will be controlled by the terms of the promise or undertaking. This is the receipt of money by an elected official under color of official right within the meaning of Act. 


A West Virginia program allowed foreign medical school graduates to practice under a temporary permit while studying for the state licensing exams. Some physicians were allowed to practice for years, even though they repeatedly failed the state exams. Petitioner Robert L. McCormick, a West Virginia state legislator, was a leading supporter of the program. After several temporarily licensed physicians formed an organization to represent their interests, McCormick sponsored legislation that would have permitted experienced doctors to be permanently licensed without passing state licensing exams. McCormick received contributions from foreign doctors during his reelection campaign. Thereafter, in federal district court, McCormick was charged with and convicted of extorting property under color of official right in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C.S. § 1951, and violating 26 U.S.C.S. § 7206(1) by filing a false income tax return. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions, finding that proof of a quid pro quo was not required to establish a Hobbs Act violation because the proper inquiry was whether the parties intended payments to be "legitimate" campaign contributions. McCormick was granted a writ of certiorari.


Did the appellate court err in affirming McCormick's convictions?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed McCormick's convictions and remanded the matter for further proceedings. The Court disagreed with the view that a quid pro quo was not necessary for conviction under the Hobbs Act when an official received a campaign contribution. The Court held that the trial court's jury instructions to the same effect were error. It was unrealistic to conclude that a legislator committed the federal crime of extortion under color of official right when he acted for the benefit of constituents or supported legislation that furthered their interests, shortly before or after campaign contributions were solicited and received from those beneficiaries. It was also error to rely on the extortion conviction to affirm the tax conviction because an extortion conviction did not demonstrate that payments were not campaign contributions and hence taxable. Thus, the case was remanded to permit the appellate court to consider whether McCormick was properly convicted for filing a false income tax return in the absence of a Hobbs Act conviction.

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