But the ruling also presents a number of potential downsides. It could make it harder for victims to ever receive full justice. And it could make it easier for truly corrupt public officials to get away with misconduct.
Perhaps worst of all, the ruling might help obscure the truth about what really happened in the Siegelman and Minor cases. If the defendants are eventually cleared, it might seem to be only because the Supreme Court issued a new version of the law. In fact, the defendants never should have been prosecuted, much less convicted, under the old law.
Justice in the Siegelman/Minor cases never will be about the evolution of honest-services law. It's about the need to address rank corruption. It's about prosecutors who surely knew they had no case under any version of the law but proceeded anyway. It's about judges who helped assure convictions by giving bogus jury verdicts.
On the surface, the Supreme Court's findings dealt with the cases of former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling and former media magnate Conrad Black. But we suspect their ultimate effect will be to hide the ugly truth at the heart of the Siegelman and Minor cases.
The legal profession has a vested interest in convincing the public that it operates in an honest fashion. If the public ever understood that innocent citizens were imprisoned because of their political affiliations--and came to understand how that happened--there would be calls for massive reform of the justice system. And that's the last thing lawyers and judges want.
What to do? Make it look like the Siegelman/Minor defendants got off only because of a technical change in the law. That legitimizes the actions of prosecutors and judges at the trial level. It legitimizes the blatantly unlawful actions of appellate courts, the 11th and Fifth Circuits, that have upheld portions of the convictions.
Why does this matter down the road? Given the Obama administration's determination to ignore apparent crimes by Bush-era officials, the victims' best chance for true justice probably lies in the civil arena, with lawsuits for rampant violations of Constitutional rights.
If Don Siegelman, Richard Scrushy, Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield are freed from prison and file lawsuits, they could be entitled to massive damages. How do you quantify the suffering of men who have lost a collective 20-plus years of their lives? How do you put a price tag on that? Who will be held accountable?
Such lawsuits, we suspect, become harder to win if it appears the convictions were obtained legitimately, under the law at the time. And that's what the Supreme Court's Skilling/Black rulings appear designed to do.
Finally, problems with the Skilling/Black rulings go beyond the victims of political prosecutions. The decision also leaves the public more vulnerable to the misconduct of truly corrupt public officials.
Technically, the Supreme Court did not overturn the honest-services statute. But it might as well have. The court found that the honest-services statute now applies only in cases where bribery or kickbacks are present. But it's clear that bribery already is covered under federal law. And our research indicates that kickbacks also are covered under multiple statutes.
So what is the purpose of an honest-services statute that depends on crimes that already are covered under other laws? Best we can tell, there isn't one. It might as well not exist.
Essentially, the Supreme Court has monetized public corruption. But history tells us that not all corrupt acts are driven by money. What about the judge who rules unlawfully as a favor to certain parties or attorneys? What about the mayor who ignores zoning laws for a certain business because he's having an extramarital affair with the owner?