The recent reversal of Sheldon Silver’s corruption conviction by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit confirms the point I’ve been making for months about President Trump: his actions, as controversial as they may be, do not fit the definition of “corruption,” as that vague word is used in federal statutes.
My critics have argued for an extraordinarily broad definition of corruption capable of being expanded to fit nearly everything Trump has done — from firing FBI Director James Comey, to asking him to consider dropping the investigation of General Michael Flynn, to his son’s meeting with Russian surrogates.
This is the way the New York Times put it in its story about the court’s narrowing the meaning of corruption in the context of federal criminal law: “There was a time when political corruption might have been described — as a former Supreme Court justice once said of pornography — as something you knew when you saw it.” In other words, it was in the eye of the beholder rather than in a precise statutory definition.
That dangerous time — dangerous because it substituted the rule of individual prosecutors for the rule of law — came to a gradual end over the past several years as the Supreme Court repeatedly cabined the definition of corruption under federal statutes. It ruled that not all political actions that smell or look like corruption can be prosecuted criminally without Congress specifically making such conduct criminal by precisely worded legislation.
This salutary approach to defining overbroad words like corruption was applauded by many civil libertarians and liberals, and especially by criminal defense attorneys who had seen up close how expandable terms like corruption could be, and were being abused by ambitious prosecutors determined to add notches to their belts by convicting dishonest politicians.
Now many of these same civil libertarians, liberals and even defense attorneys have forgotten how dangerous those bad…