526 U.S. 398 (1999), 98-131, United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of Cal

Docket Nº:Case No. 98-131
Citation:526 U.S. 398, 119 S.Ct. 1402, 143 L.Ed.2d 576, 67 U.S.L.W. 4265
Case Date:April 27, 1999
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 398

526 U.S. 398 (1999)

119 S.Ct. 1402, 143 L.Ed.2d 576, 67 U.S.L.W. 4265




Case No. 98-131

United States Supreme Court

April 27, 1999

Argued March 2, 1999



Respondent trade association was charged with violating, inter alia, 18 U.S.C. § 201(c)(1)(A), which prohibits giving "anything of value" to a present, past, or future public official "for or because of any official act performed or to be performed by such public official." Count One of the indictment asserted that respondent gave illegal gratuities to former Secretary of Agriculture Michael Espy while two matters in which it had an interest in favorable treatment were pending before Espy. The indictment did not, however, allege a specific connection between either of those matters (or any other Espy action) and the gratuities conferred. In denying respondent's motion to dismiss Count One because of this omission, the District Court stated that, to sustain a § 201(c)(1)(A) charge, it is sufficient to allege that the defendant provided things of value to the official because of his position. At trial, the court instructed the jury along these same lines. The jury convicted respondent on Count One, and the court imposed a fine. The Court of Appeals reversed that conviction and remanded for a new trial, stating that, because § 201(c)(1)(A)'s "for or because of any official act" language means what it says, the instructions invited the jury to convict on materially less evidence than the statute demands—evidence of gifts driven simply by Espy's official position. In rejecting respondent's attack on the indictment, however, the court stated that the Government need not show that a gratuity was given "for or because of" any particular act or acts: That an official has relevant matters before him should not insulate him as long as the jury is required to find the requisite intent to reward past favorable acts or to make future ones more likely.


1. In order to establish a § 201(c)(1)(A) violation, the Government must prove a link between a thing of value conferred upon a federal official and a specific "official act" for or because of which it was given. The Government's contention that § 201(c)(1)(A) is satisfied merely by a showing that respondent gave Secretary Espy a gratuity because of his official position does not fit comfortably with the statutory text, the more natural meaning of which is "for or because of some particular

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official act of whatever identity." The statute's insistence upon an "official act," carefully defined (in § 201(a)(3)), seems pregnant with the requirement that some particular official act be identified and proved. The Government's alternative reading would produce peculiar results, criminalizing, e. g., token gifts to the President based on his official position and not linked to any identifiable act—such as the replica jerseys given by championship sports teams each year during ceremonial White House visits. Although, under the more narrow interpretation, the jerseys could be regarded as having been conferred (perhaps principally) "for or because of" the official act of receiving sports teams at the White House, such receipt—while assuredly an "official act" in some sense—is not an "action on [a] matter . . . before any public official, in [his] official capacity, or in [his] place of trust or profit" within the meaning of the § 201(a)(3) definition. The Government's insistence that its interpretation is the only one that gives effect to § 201(c)(1)(A)'s forward-looking prohibition on gratuities to selectees for federal office is rejected because the section can readily be applied to such persons even under the more narrow interpretation. Pp. 404-408.

2. The Court's holding is supported by the fact that when Congress has wanted to adopt a broadly prophylactic criminal prohibition upon gift giving, it has done so in a more precise and more administrable fashion. See, e. g., § 209(a). Finally, a narrow, rather than a sweeping, prohibition is more compatible with the fact that § 201(c)(1)(A) is merely one strand of an intricate web of regulations, both administrative and criminal, governing the acceptance of gifts and other self-enriching actions by public officials. Because this is an area where precisely targeted prohibitions are commonplace, and where more general prohibitions have been qualified by numerous exceptions, a statute that can linguistically be interpreted to be either a meat axe or a scalpel should reasonably be taken to be the latter. Pp. 408-412.

3. The Court rejects the Government's contention that the District Court's mistaken instructions concerning § 201(c)(1)(A)'s scope—which essentially and incorrectly substituted the term "official position" for "official act"—constituted harmless error. The Government's argument that the jury's verdict rendered pursuant to the instructions necessarily included a finding that respondent's gratuities were given and received "for or because of" official acts is but a restatement of the same flawed premise that permeated the instructions themselves and that the Court has herein rejected. Pp. 412-414.

138 F.3d 961, affirmed.

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Robert W. Ray argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Donald C. Smaltz, Charles M. Kagay, and Stephen R. McAllister.

Eric W. Bloom argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Richard A. Hibey and Charles B. Klein.[*]

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

Talmudic sages believed that judges who accepted bribes would be punished by eventually losing all knowledge of the divine law. The Federal Government, dealing with many public officials who are not judges, and with at least some judges for whom this sanction holds no terror, has constructed a framework of human laws and regulations defining various sorts of impermissible gifts, and punishing those who give or receive them with administrative sanctions, fines, and incarceration. One element of that framework is 18 U.S.C. § 201(c)(1)(A), the "illegal gratuity statute," which prohibits giving "anything of value" to a present, past, or future public official "for or because of any official act performed or to be performed by such public official." In this case, we consider whether conviction under the illegal gratuity statute requires any showing beyond the fact that a gratuity was given because of the recipient's official position.


Respondent is a trade association that engaged in marketing and lobbying activities on behalf of its member cooperatives, which were owned by approximately 5,000 individual

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growers of raisins, figs, walnuts, prunes, and hazelnuts. Petitioner United States is represented by Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz, who, as a consequence of his investigation of former Secretary of Agriculture Michael Espy, charged respondent with, inter alia, making illegal gifts to Espy in violation of § 201(c)(1)(A). That statute provides, in relevant part, that anyone who

"otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duty . . . directly or indirectly gives, offers, or promises anything of value to any public official, former public official, or person selected to be a public official, for or because of any official act performed or to be performed by such public official, former public official, or person selected to be a public official . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both."

Count One of the indictment charged Sun-Diamond with giving Espy approximately $5,900 in illegal gratuities: tickets to the 1993 U.S. Open Tennis Tournament (worth $2,295), luggage ($2,427), meals ($665), and a framed print and crystal bowl ($524). The indictment alluded to two matters in which respondent had an interest in favorable treatment from the Secretary at the time it bestowed the gratuities. First, respondent's member cooperatives participated in the Market Promotion Plan (MPP), a grant program administered by the Department of Agriculture to promote the sale of U.S. farm commodities in foreign countries. The cooperatives belonged to trade organizations, such as the California Prune Board and the Raisin Administrative Committee, which submitted overseas marketing plans for their respective commodities. If their plans were approved by the Secretary of Agriculture, the trade organizations received funds to be used in defraying the foreign marketing expenses of their constituents. Each of respondent's member cooperatives was the largest member

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of its respective trade organization, and each received significant MPP funding. Respondent was understandably concerned, then, when Congress in 1993 instructed the Secretary to promulgate regulations giving small-sized entities preference in obtaining MPP funds. Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, Pub. L. 103-66, § 1302(b)(2)(A), 107 Stat. 330-331. If the Secretary did not deem respondent's member cooperatives to be small-sized entities, there was a good chance they would no longer receive MPP grants. Thus, respondent had an interest in persuading the Secretary to adopt a regulatory definition of "small-sized entity" that would include its member cooperatives.

Second, respondent had an interest in the Federal Government's regulation of methyl bromide, a low-cost pesticide used by many individual growers in respondent's member cooperatives. In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to promulgate a rule to phase out the use of methyl bromide in the United States. The indictment alleged that respondent sought the Department of Agriculture's assistance in persuading the EPA to abandon its proposed rule altogether, or at least to mitigate its impact. In the...

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