Posts Tagged ‘honest services’

Skilling Decision: Good for Justice, Bad for Jurisprudence

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

jeff skilling

It looks like we spotted the trend.  Unfortunately.

Last week we noted that, when faced with an ambiguous statute, some on the Supreme Court are now willing to read new language into the statute, rather than toss it back to Congress to do it right.  And we wondered if that might be a harbinger of what was to come in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach and Skilling.

Well, those cases came down this morning, and sure enough the majority decided to read in new language, rather than toss out the statute for being vague.

It’s great for the defendants, whose honest-services convictions got tossed.  But to get there the Court had to change the rules.  Now, judicial invention is a perfectly acceptable method of statutory interpretation… so long as the new language is what “everybody knows” the statute really meant to say.  And that’s bloody dangerous. 


We’ve been paying close attention to this issue (see other posts here, here, here and here), as have many others, because the feds love charging people with honest services fraud.  It’s so vague and open-ended, that it potentially criminalizes any activity that’s outside one’s job description.  That makes it a great catchall when you can’t prove something more substantive.  But it’s also not at all what Congress intended.

“Honest services” fraud was originally a judge-created law.  There wasn’t any statute criminalizing it, it just sort evolved via common law, accepted in all the Circuits.  But we don’t do common-law crimes in this country, for one thing, and the mail fraud statute didn’t say anything about intangible rights, so in 1987 the Supreme Court threw out the common-law version of honest services fraud.  If Congress wanted to criminalize it, then that was up to Congress.

The idea was pretty simple: If you had a position of trust, and you abused that position for private gain (say, by taking bribes or kickbacks), then you were depriving people of the services you ought to have been giving them had you been honest.  You were getting paid under the table to do your job wrong.  So in 1988 Congress came up with 18 U.S.C. § 1346.

But the language didn’t say anything about abusing a position of trust.  Instead, it just said that (more…)

Is Dolan a Clue to the Upcoming “Honest Services” Decisions?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
We’re still waiting to hear how the Supreme Court decides the trio of cases on “honest services” fraud.  In the meantime, we’re wondering if yesterday’s Dolan decision might be a harbinger of what’s to come.

In Dolan, the Court was dealing with a vague statute.  It left out a crucial statement of what ought to happen if the court missed a deadline.  They could have sent it back to Congress to specify what ought to happen.  After oral arguments, during which both the progressive Stevens and the formalist Scalia seemed inclined to do just that, we figured it was probably going to happen.  But we figured wrong. 

Instead, the Court split 5-4, not on ideological lines, but on seniority.  The five most junior justices agreed to craft their own remedy language for the statute, based on what they felt the general purpose was supposed to be.  The four more senior justices wanted Congress to amend the statute itself, and pointed out that the juniors’ interpretation actually undermined the existing language already in the statute.

We wonder if we’re going to see a similar split (and similar strange bedfellows) in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach, and (more…)

Scalia’s Right! Supremes “Quite Irresponsible to Let the Current Chaos Prevail”

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009


18 U.S.C. § 1346 expands the definition of mail & wire fraud to include “a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” That’s short and sweet, but what does it mean?

The courts have been left to define the crime for themselves. Unfortunately, they differ wildly in what the theft of honest services means. The Fifth Circuit says it’s only a crime if the deprivation of services was also a crime under state law. The Seventh Circuit says the crime is when someone abuses their position for private gain. The Third Circuit says gain is irrelevant.

In general, they agree that employees and public officials have a duty to act only in the best interest of their employers and constituents. But there are lots of ways to act otherwise, and the courts seem to agree that not all of them ought to be criminalized. There is a spectrum of behavior, ranging from the socially acceptable to the abhorrent. Where the line ought to be drawn is undefined and uncertain.

So the Supreme Court finally had a chance to clear it all up, define what “honest services” means, and give straightforward guidance to the courts and to all the employees and officeholders out there. Sorich v. United States, No. 08-410 came to the Supremes on a cert petition, asking them to define the crime and settle the issue at last. That’s what the Supreme Court likes to do, after all — if the circuits can’t agree, it the Court’s job to define the correct approach.

Instead, the Supremes punted, and denied cert.

Scalia wrote an intense dissent, pointing out that this is precisely the kind of issue that the Court ought to resolve, that the split among the circuits is causing confusion in the law, and that real injustice is resulting. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “quite irresponsible to let the current chaos prevail.” We can’t help but agree.

“If the honest services theory… is taken seriously and carried to its logical conclusion,” Scalia pointed out that all kinds of actions would be criminal. Not all ought to be. “A state legislator’s decision to vote for a bill because he expects it will curry favor with a small minority essential to his reelection,” a perfectly normal and expected aspect of electoral politics, would be a federal crime. “A mayor’s attempt to use the prestige of his office to obtain a restaurant table without a reservation,” a perhaps obnoxious act, but one hardly worthy of punishment, would also be included. “Indeed, it would seemingly cover a salaried employee’s phoning in sick to go to a ball game.”

“What principle it is that separates the criminal breaches, conflicts and misstatements from the obnoxious but lawful ones, remains entirely unspecified.” Failing to define what the crime actually means invites unjust prosecutions by “headline-grabbing prosecutors.” Furthermore, nobody knows if their actions would be considered criminal or not, and “it is simply not fair to prosecute someone for a crime” that won’t be defined until the judge’s ruling that sends him to jail. “How can the public be expected to know what the statute means when the judges and prosecutors themselves do not know, or must make it up as they go along?”

Scalia closed with an excellent dictum, quoting from another useful dissent — that of Hugo Black in Green v. United States, 365 U.S. 301, 309 (1961) — “Bad men, like good men, are entitled to be tried and sentenced in accordance with law.” It is truly unfortunate that the Supreme Court has passed on an excellent opportunity to ensure just that.