Legalizing Extortion


In 1984, Robert McCormick, a West Virginia legislator runnin for re-election, told the lobbyist for a group of foreign doctors seeking a change in licensing laws that he had "heard nothing from" them, and reminded the lobbyist that he had helped them in the past and had planned to do so in the future. They got the message and he got a contribution.

He was charged with extortion and convicted. Last month, the Supreme Court threw out the conviction. Justice Byron White said, "Serving constituents and supporting legislation that will benefit the district and individuals and groups therein is the everyday business of a legislator. It is true that campaigns must be run and financed. Money is constantly being solicited on behalf of candidates, who run on platforms and who claim support on the basis of their views and what they intend to do or have done."

Justice White said this would be extortion "only [our italics] if the payments are made in return for an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not to perform an explicit act." In other words, it is okay to seek money from someone and then appropriately vote or otherwise act in an official capacity as they wish unless the contributor says something as specific as, say, "This $1,000 is for voting 'yes' on Bill 1234," or the candidate says, "Give me $1,000 or I won't vote for Bill 1234."

That is political realism gone amok. A former campaign manager like Justice White (John F. Kennedy, 1960) surely knows the truth of Justice John Paul Stevens' dissent, "Subtle extortion is just as wrongful -- and probably much more common -- than the kind of express understanding that the court's opinion seems to require."

What makes the White opinion so disturbing, so clearly an invitation to lobbyists and legislators to enter into corrupt bargains, are the facts in the case under consideration by the Supreme Court. Mr. McCormick got his contribution in the form of cash, beginning almost immediately after his implied threat, with nine $100 bills, then $2,000 more in cash, then two more cash contributions. None of this was listed by the McCormick campaign or the doctors' organization as campaign contributions (such reporting is required by West Virginia law), though both kept private records of the transaction. If that transaction is legal, what wouldn't be?

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