Thursday, June 27th, 2024

A victory for lenity?

Yesterday, in Snyder v. United States, the Supreme Court held that 18 USC 666 prohibits bribes to state and local officials, but does not prohibit  gratuities to state and local officials. The difference between a bribe and a gratuity is largely one of timing of the agreement: a bribe is given to a public official to induce them to take future action, while a gratuity is given to a public official to thank them for taking a past action.  (But, note that “rewards” are still covered by Section 666). Applying the statute to gratuities would create “traps for unwary state and local officials.” The court trots out various examples:  “Is a $100 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card for a trash collector wrongful? What about a $200 Nike gift card for a county commissioner who voted to fund new school athletic facilities? Could students take their college professor out to Chipotle for an end-of-term celebration? And if so, would it somehow become criminal to take the professor for a steak dinner? Or to treat her to a Hoosiers game?”

The majority also marches through five additional dry justifications for their decision, which mostly boil down to statutory construction and federalism. It concludes by noting that a gratuity for an official action may be “unethical or illegal” under other laws, but is not a violation of Section 666. In his concurrence, Justice Gorsch, puts the matter more plainly: “make no mistake: Whatever the label, lenity is what’s at work behind today’s decision, just as it is in so many others. Rightly so. I am pleased to join.”

In dissent, however, Justice Jackson makes her disagreement plain: “Snyder’s absurd and atextual reading of the statute is one only today’s Court could love.” Ouch.

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