MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And we begin this hour with the Supreme Court, and two big decisions today. In a moment, the issue of privacy raised by a ballot measure to limit gay rights.
But first, we turn to a federal law used to prosecute white-collar crime. The court severely restricted the ability of federal prosecutors to bring corruption cases against public officials and corporate executives. The justices decided unanimously to impose stark limits on the so-called honest services law.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: The court's ruling came in the case of former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, convicted of engaging in a scheme to enrich himself by deceiving shareholders about Enron's true financial condition. He was convicted on a variety of charges, including depriving the Enron investors of his honest services.
Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the definition of honest services in federal law was so broad that if viewed literally, it would be unconstitutionally vague, providing inadequate notice to citizens about what conduct is legal and what is not. Instead, a six-justice majority led by Ruth Bader Ginsburg declined to invalidate the law outright but read it narrowly to cover only bribery and kickbacks.
For Skilling and many others, that may mean invalidation of some counts on which they were convicted while leaving intact other charges that did not involve the honest services statute. The Supreme Court sent Skilling's case and a companion case involving Canadian media magnate Conrad Black back to the lower courts for further action.
Jacob Frenkel, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor, says the problem for Skilling and Black is that they were convicted of charges other than honest services fraud.
Mr. JACOB FRENKEL (Lawyer): Even if the honest services fraud counts are thrown out, they're going to continue to be guests of the United States Bureau of Prisons because the other convictions likely will continue to stand.
TOTENBERG: Not everyone will stay in prison, though. Former prosecutors estimate that today's decision may well invalidate hundreds of honest services convictions.
The decision also deprives the Justice Department of one of its most widely used tools in prosecuting both public and private corruption. Already today, lawyers for impeached former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich were seeking to abort his corruption trial because some of the charges against him involve the honest services law. And in New York, former state Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno, recently sentenced to two years in prison for a violation of the honest services statute, is expected to seek dismissal of the charges. Former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.
Mr. RICHARD THORNBURGH (Former U.S. Attorney General): It does represent a real cutback on what the department can use in seeking convictions in some of these cases.
TOTENBERG: Columbia law professor John Coffee, who specializes in white-color crime, says the decision will have a particularly dramatic impact in public corruption cases where state and local officials will find themselves immune from federal prosecution for a wide variety of misdeeds that do not involve kickbacks or bribery.
Professor JOHN COFFEE (Columbia Law School): Suppose you're the mayor or city council president of some city and at the public city council meeting, you award a very lucrative contract to a corporation that you fail to disclose you and your family own 50 percent of. That's not bribery, that's not a kickback. That is undisclosed self-dealing. And a month ago, this would have been seen as unlawful, and after this decision, it's not.
TOTENBERG: Similarly, a governor who puts no-show relatives on the payroll, for example, has not either accepted a bribe or a kickback and thus has not violated a federal law.
Robert Luskin, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor who teaches at the University of Virginia Law School, observes that two decades ago, the first time the Supreme Court narrowed the meaning of the honest services statute, Congress quickly passed a new law containing very broad language - the very language the court today essentially tossed out as too broad.
Professor ROBERT LUSKIN (University of Virginia School of Law): This time around, Congress has got to legislate with some particularity.
TOTENBERG: But this time around, Congress may be less willing to wade into these legal waters.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.