In a decision that could have implications for the Rod Blagojevich corruption trial, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of overturning a federal fraud law that has been a favorite of white-collar crime prosecutors.
The high court says the "honest services" law, which holds public officials’ feet to the fire over unethical perks like free tickets and appointing family members to lucrative posts, could not be used in convicting Jeffrey Skilling for his role in the collapse of Houston-based Enron.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, in her majority opinion, that the ruling does not necessarily require Skilling's conviction to be overturned.
Several justices, during arguments in December, seemed inclined to limit prosecution use of this law -- which critics have said is vague.
The court, at the same time, rejected Skilling's claim that he did not get a fair trial in Houston because of harshly critical publicity that surrounded the case in Enron's hometown.
The court today also sided with former newspaper magnate Conrad Black, setting aside a federal appeals court decision that had upheld Black's honest services fraud conviction.
The law has been effective in Illinois corruption trials, helping to convict characters like Gov. George Ryan and others.
Opponents of “honest-services” say that the law is too vague and is not specific about when a easy friendships cross the line into criminal, thereby allowing prosecutors to take down public officials over minutiae.
Justice Antonin Scalia already sounded off on the law, when he wrote the dissenting opinion in the upheld conviction of Chicagoan Robert Sorich and two other city officials.
The law "invites abuse by headline-grabbing prosecutors" who can turn minor ethical lapses into a crime that carries a long prison term. Honest-services fraud is so broad it "would seemingly cover a salaried employee's phoning in sick to go to a ball game," Scalia wrote.
Blagojevich's defense lawyers have been anticipating the ruling. They tried unsuccessfully to have the trial postponed while the Supreme Court deliberated.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel turned down a request from Blagojevich's lawyers to stop the trial so they could digest Thursday's ruling, which affects a law making it illegal for public officials to deny taxpayers the right to their honest services.
Zagel said the decision "may not offer a lot of hope" for the former governor.
Some of the charges against Blagojevich are based on the honest services law. But anticipating the Supreme Court's ruling which limited the use of the law by prosecutors, the U.S. attorney's office has also brought charges that are not based on it.
Zagel allowed former Blagojevich Chief of Staff John Harris to keep testifying despite the defense request for a delay.