New Jersey Supreme Court sends correct message on political corruption

The U.S. Supreme Court should take a lesson

August 8, 2023 7:09 am

New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued a forceful decision Monday that clarifies our state's bribery statute does indeed cover politicians who don't hold public office. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Thank you to the New Jersey Supreme Court for looking at a corrupt act and saying it’s illegal.

If only the U.S. Supreme Court would do the same.

The state’s high court ruled unanimously Monday that a political candidate who holds no office but who makes promises on the campaign trail in exchange for cash can indeed be charged under New Jersey’s bribery statute, ending a farce that began two years ago when a judge in — where else? — Hudson County ruled differently.

The decision by New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner is a far cry from what U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Co. have done in recent years, like ruling in favor of a former Virginia governor involved in super sleazy acts to enrich himself and his wife; the duo who helped carry out the infamous Bridgegate scheme right here in the Garden State; and a former New York official who took cash in exchange for using his connections to the state’s then-governor to do a favor for private developers.

Some acts in those cases were brazen examples of public corruption — the ex-Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell, arranged official meetings and hosted events for a business executive who was showering McDonnell and his wife with $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other perks — but the nation’s high court justices responded with a unanimous shrug each time. Sorry, they said, nothing we can do about it.

Thankfully, their New Jersey counterparts did not follow their lead.

The New Jersey case involves Jason O’Donnell, a former assemblyman who in 2018 was seeking to become Bayonne’s mayor. Prosecutors allege he took $10,000 in cash placed in a Baskin-Robbins bag from a corrupt attorney and, in exchange, promised that attorney a public job. O’Donnell fought the charge, arguing that New Jersey’s bribery statute bars public officials from taking bribes but does not do so for private citizens seeking office.

“One who is not an official cannot have official duties,” O’Donnell’s attorney, Leo Hurley, argued in April.

If the Roberts court were overseeing this case, O’Donnell would likely have won this argument. But the Rabner court said no, in a cogent and forceful opinion that I hope our nine U.S. Supreme Court justices read.

“Ordinary people can understand that New Jersey’s bribery statute does not allow them to accept a bag of cash in exchange for promising a future appointment to a city post,” Rabner wrote.

Compare this to the finale of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the McDonnell case, which marks the genesis of the court’s hallowing out of our federal anti-corruption statutes. In that case, prosecutors said that McDonnell took gifts in exchange for official acts. But, the court ruled unanimously, McDonnell’s actions — among other things, arranging meetings with state officials and hosting events at the governor’s mansion, all to benefit the guy giving the McDonnells jewelry and clothes and cash — were not “official acts” under the federal Hobbs Act.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute,” Roberts wrote in his opinion.

If ordinary people can understand that the law does not allow a politician to accept a sack of cash in exchange for giving someone a public job, ordinary people can also understand that the law does not allow a governor to use his job to reward his benefactor. It’s the Roberts court that doesn’t understand this. Luckily for New Jersey, the Rabner court does.


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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”