In a surprise decision Tuesday morning, the United States Supreme Court vacated an earlier ruling by a lower court in the case of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who was convicted of bribery and honest services fraud in 2006 in a case that has widely been criticized as politically motivated.
The ruling was vacated in light of a ruling last week in the case of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling which partially struck down the so-called "honest services" fraud statute. On the heels of that decision, the Supreme Court issued a surprise ruling in the Siegelman case on Tuesday morning:
SIEGELMAN, DON E. V. UNITED STATES
The petitions for writs of certiorari are granted. The
judgment is vacated, and the cases are remanded to the United
States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for further
consideration in light of Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S.
Siegelman's attorney for the Supreme Court appeal, Sam Heldman, told Raw Story, "We are very pleased with the Court's ruling. This is an important step towards a complete victory for Governor Siegelman."
Siegelman's case will now be remanded back to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for a second consideration.
It doesn't mean, however, that Siegelman is out of the woods. In March 2009, the Eleventh Circuit upheld bribery, conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges against Siegelman and refused a request for a new trial. They could easily do so again.
In what many have alleged was a politically-motivated prosecution orchestrated from the top echelons of the Republican Party's power structure, Siegelman, a Democrat, was convicted in 2006 of selling a seat on an Alabama hospital regulatory board for $500,000 to former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, by way of donations to a 1999 Siegelman sponsored state lottery campaign, for which Siegelman received no profit and no campaign financing.
The case has come under public scrutiny because of allegations that former Bush White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, was behind the prosecutions for political motives. Leura Canary, the US Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama and who prosecuted Siegelman is married to Rove's long-time friend and business partner William Canary. Siegelman's gubernatorial opponent at the time of his indictment, Bob Riley, had hired William Canary as a campaign advisor.
Rove, who was subpoenaed three times by the House Judiciary Committee as part of their investigation into the Siegelman case, failed to show for each of the hearings and only agreed to testify on the condition that he be not under oath and not in public, which the Judiciary granted.
In March 2009, a three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court reversed two out of the seven charges of corruption and bribery relating to Siegelman's conviction.
The Supreme Court decision today vacates the Circuit Court's ruling and remands the case back to them to reconsider in light of last Thursday's ruling in the Skilling case.
Scott Horton, Columbia University law professor and contributor to Harper's is not surprised by today's ruling, telling Raw Story early this morning that if the Circuit Court approaches the Siegelman case fairly, they will vacate the conviction entirely.
'This is not surprising, indeed, it's the outcome I anticipated," wrote Horton in an email Tuesday morning.
"The Supreme Court's majority allowed honest services fraud to continue on seriously narrowed grounds, basically reduced to clear cases of bribery, while a powerful minority wants to strike it altogether expressing sharp dissatisfaction with the Justice Department's management of honest-services fraud, particularly in 'political' cases," he added. "The Eleventh Circuit should now apply this to the Siegelman case. If they do so fairly, the Siegelman case is over. Moreover, the Justice Department should read the Skilling decision carefully. If they do and follow the spirit of the ruling, they will simply abandon the Siegelman case, which they should have done long ago."
Editor's note: Because of a legal misinterpretation, the original version of this story asserted that the Supreme Court had vacated Siegelman's conviction entirely. In fact, they vacated a narrower part of the case, a recent ruling by the Eleventh Circuit denying Siegelman the right to a new trial. This version has been updated to correct those misinterpretations.