WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday let stand the conviction of Sheldon Silver, the once-powerful State Assembly speaker in New York who went to prison last summer on federal corruption charges.
As is the court’s custom, its brief order gave no reasons for turning down the case. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented, saying the court should have heard the case to clarify its rulings on bribery and extortion.
The court has in recent years been skeptical of broad interpretations of public corruption laws, saying they are not all-purpose devices to ensure good government.
Mr. Silver’s lawyers told the justices that prosecutors had overreached in his case by securing his conviction of accepting bribes in a real estate scheme without proving that those who made the payments had intended to influence particular official actions.
The federal appeals court in New York, in affirming Mr. Silver’s conviction for his role in the scheme, said it was enough that he understood that he would take official actions in exchange for the payments.
Mr. Silver, a Democrat, was convicted in 2015 of accepting nearly $4 million in illicit payments and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. But that conviction was overturned on appeal following a 2016 United States Supreme Court decision that unanimously overturned the broadly similar conviction of Bob McDonnell, a former Republican governor of Virginia.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court in the McDonnell case, said that only formal and concrete government actions may be the subject of prosecutions under federal public-corruption laws.
Mr. Silver was retried and convicted in 2018. According to prosecutors, Mr. Silver had arranged for real estate developers to hire the law firm Goldberg & Iryami, which sent Mr. Silver a portion of its fees. Mr. Silver then supported legislation that benefited the developers.
Judge Richard C. Wesley, writing for the Second Circuit panel, said there was ample evidence that Mr. Silver understood that the payments in the real estate scheme were made in return for commitments to take official actions. But there was no requirement, Judge Wesley wrote, of a “meeting of the minds” between those making and receiving the payments about what those actions should be.
In urging the Supreme Court to hear Mr. Silver’s case, his lawyers said that legal standard gave prosecutors too much power.
“The Second Circuit approved jury instructions that allowed a state official to be convicted of federal bribery on a jury’s after-the-fact finding that the official had an unexpressed, unilateral understanding (or misunderstanding) that he was being bribed,” the lawyers wrote in their petition seeking Supreme Court review. The ruling, they wrote, “places every official at the mercy of federal prosecutors, dismantling this court’s work at reining in federal prosecutors.”
The brief cited the McDonnell case, in which Mr. McDonnell had been accused of accepting luxury products, loans and vacations from a business executive in return for arranging meetings and urging underlings to consider the executive’s requests.
It also cited last year’s ruling in the “Bridgegate” case, in which the court unanimously overturned the convictions of two defendants in a case from New Jersey. The defendants, former associates of Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey at the time, were accused of taking part in a 2013 scheme meant to punish one of the governor’s political opponents that ended up creating four days of enormous traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge.
That was an abuse of power, the Supreme Court ruled, but not a federal crime.
Prosecutors in Mr. Silver’s case responded that earlier Supreme Court decisions “confirm that the government must prove that the public official understood that he was accepting the bribe in return for an official act” but do not require proof “that the bribe giver reached an agreement with the official or shared the official’s corrupt purpose.”
Mr. Silver, 76, served as speaker for more than two decades and played a leading role in almost every major aspect of state politics. In the final days of his administration, President Donald J. Trump considered granting clemency to Mr. Silver, who was sentenced to a 78-month prison term, but decided not to after criticism from Republicans in New York.
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