“Honest services” fraud limited by Supreme Court

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a decision in Skilling v. United States that Atlanta appeals attorneys and other criminal defense lawyers across the country noted with interest. In their decision, the court limited the scope of an anti-fraud law that prosecutors like to use in corruption cases. The Supreme Court said that this law, the “honest services” law, was too vague, violating the defendants’ Fifth Amendment right to the due process of law.

The law in question makes it a crime “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” The law was used to get convictions in several high-profile cases, including those of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, and Conrad M. Black, a newspaper executive convicted of defrauding his media company.

Many lower courts and legal scholars have said before that the “honest services” law was hopelessly vague. They said it gave insufficient notice of what was a crime, and gave prosecutors too much discretion in deciding when to charge someone with violating the law.

Six justices said that the law should be limited to bribes and kickbacks. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, and was joined by John Roberts, John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor.

Prosecutors had charged Skilling with manipulating Enron’s financial results and misleading investors about them. But Justice Ginsburg wrote that, “The government did not, at any time, allege that Skilling solicited or accepted side payments from a third party for making these misrepresentations. It is therefore clear that, as we read [the statute], Skilling did not commit honest-services fraud.”

Skilling’s lawyers argued that this decision should void his entire conviction, but Ginsburg wrote only that it was “an open question” to be resolved by lower courts.

Source: New York Times, “Justices Limit Use of ‘Honest Services’ Law Against Fraud,” June 24, 2010