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Law School Case Brief

McDonnell v. United States - 136 S. Ct. 2355 (2016)


An “official act” is a decision or action on a question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy. The question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee. It must also be something specific and focused that is “pending” or “may by law be brought” before a public official. To qualify as an “official act,” the public official must make a decision or take an action on that “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” or agree to do so. That decision or action may include using his official position to exert pressure on another official to perform an “official act,” or to advise another official, knowing or intending that such advice will form the basis for an “official act” by another official. Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so)—without more—does not fit that definition of "official act."


Petitioner former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, were indicted by the respondent federal government on honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion charges related to their acceptance of $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from Virginia businessperson Jonnie Williams, while Governor McDonnell was in office. Williams was the chief executive officer of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that had developed Anatabloc, a nutritional supplement made from anatabine, a compound found in tobacco. Star Scientific hoped that Virginia's public universities would perform research studies on anatabine, and Williams wanted Governor McDonnell's assistance in obtaining those studies. To convict the McDonnells, the Government was required to show that Governor McDonnell committed (or agreed to commit) an “official act” in exchange for the loans and gifts. The District Court instructed the jury that “official act” encompasses “acts that a public official customarily performs,” including acts “in furtherance of longer-term goals” or “in a series of steps to exercise influence or achieve an end.” Governor McDonnell requested that the court further instruct the jury that “merely arranging a meeting, attending an event, hosting a reception, or making a speech are not, standing alone, 'official acts,' " but the District Court declined to give that instruction. The jury convicted Governor McDonnell. Governor McDonnell moved to vacate his convictions on the ground that the definition of “official act” in the jury instructions was erroneous. He also moved for acquittal, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him, and that the Hobbs Act and honest services statute were unconstitutionally vague. The District Court denied the motions, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court of the United States granted review to clarify the meaning of “official act.”


In a case charging a governor under the federal bribery statute, did the federal district court err in instructing the jury according to the Government’s broad understanding of what constitutes an "official act?"




On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the the judgment in which the Court of Appeals had upheld the former Governor's convictions. The Court held that the district court erred when it adopted the Government's broad interpretation of the term “official action” and used that interpretation when instructing the jury. Although the Governor and his wife accepted loans and gifts from an individual who was interested in having state universities evaluate a nutritional supplement that was produced by a company he owned, invited that individual to meetings, and introduced him to state employees, arranging meetings, hosting events, or calling officials were not "official actions." Because the jury was was not correctly instructed on the meaning of “official act,” it may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful. For that reason, the Court could not conclude that the errors in the jury instructions were “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Accordingly, the Court vacated Governor McDonnell’s convictions.

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