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The Corruption Continuum: When Giving Gifts Bleeds to Bribery

By Nancy Gertner | The Washington Post | May 6, 2016

Nancy Gertner is a retired federal district court judge and a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, and a CLBB Senior Faculty member. She is a signatory of an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case United States v. McDonnell, on behalf of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell.

When we talk about political corruption, what often comes to mind is what the law calls “quid pro quo”: I give a politician money and in exchange he or she gets me a government contract or votes in my favor. But there is a continuum of quid pro quo exchanges, some plainly illegal, some not and some ambiguous.

In the case of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell, the Supreme Court will decide whether it is constitutional to prosecute a public official for conduct on that continuum, conduct never before determined to be at the illegal end. The issue is not whether we should regulate gifts to public officials; the issue is whether the criminal law can be used as a bludgeon when we have not done so. I think not. As a matter of due process, criminal prosecutions can be brought only when we have clearly defined what is legal and what is not.

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