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


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.

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