Applying Citizens United to Ordinary Corruption: With a Note on Blagojevich, McDonnell, and the Criminalization of Politics

59 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2015 Last revised: 17 Jan 2016

Date Written: March 23, 2015


Federal criminal law frequently deals with the problem of corruption in the form of purchased political influence. There appear to be two distinct bodies of federal anti-corruption law — one concerning campaign finance regulation, and one addressing corruption in the form of such crimes as bribery, extortion by public officials, and gratuities to them. The latter body of law presents primarily issues of statutory construction, but it may be desirable for courts approaching these issues to have an animating theory of what corruption is and how to deal with it. At the moment, the two bodies of law look like two ships passing in the night.

The Supreme Court has rendered important decisions in both areas. However, it is only in the campaign finance cases that the Court has articulated a vision of corruption. A well-known recent example is the 2010 decision in Federal Election Commission v. Citizens United. There the Court stated that “influence” and “access” brought about through campaign support, including contributions, are not corruption. The Court appears to embrace a narrow view of what is corruption, tied closely to the concept of quid pro quo.

This Article raises the question whether cases such as Citizens United and other campaign finance decisions should have generative force outside the electoral context. I contend that they should not — that preventing purchased political influence, whether generalized or particularized, is central to the federal anti-corruption enterprise. The matter is presented both on a theoretical level, and through examination of Supreme Court cases in what might be called the field of “ordinary corruption.” This examination yields an unclear picture. Some cases appear to be in harmony with the campaign finance decisions, raising the possibility that the Court does hold a unified view of corruption. However, the decision in Evans v. United States embraces a broad view of corruption in construing a key federal statute: the Hobbs Act. Evans has had extraordinary generative force in the lower federal courts. In particular, they have diluted any requirement of specificity in the concept of quid pro quo by emphasizing the presence of a “stream of benefits” as a means of securing somewhat generalized influence with public officials. The lower courts have thus reached results that further broad anti-corruption goals while ignoring intimations of a narrow view in the campaign finance cases. To the extent that the Supreme Court may extend this narrow view to ordinary corruption, the result could, as it has in the past, be a major ruling reining in the lower courts. The two ships would, in effect, collide.

Suggested Citation

Brown, George D., Applying Citizens United to Ordinary Corruption: With a Note on Blagojevich, McDonnell, and the Criminalization of Politics (March 23, 2015). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 91. No. 1, Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 355, Available at SSRN: or

George D. Brown (Contact Author)

Boston College Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States

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