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Noah Feldman

Influence Peddling Gets First Amendment Protection

The Supreme Court makes a historic mistake by giving cover to political back-scratching. The founders would call it corruption.
A free man.

A free man.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, whose bribery conviction was unanimously overturned today by the Supreme Court, should thank his lawyers, his lucky stars and the First Amendment -- in reverse order. McDonell had been convicted by a jury for taking loans and gifts including an inscribed Rolex watch in exchange for calling state officials and setting up meetings for Jonnie Williams, the head of a Virginia company that claimed to have developed a nutritional supplement made from tobacco.

The court held that the governor’s efforts didn’t count as “official acts” as the federal bribery law required. But behind the decision was a deep worry, reflected at oral argument, that if the calls and meetings could be treated as criminal, then the entire structure of campaign finance in the U.S., protected by the First Amendment, might be made subject to criminal liability.