Skilling: Supreme Court Limits Federal Criminal Honest Services Fraud Law to Bribery and Kickbacks

In this post last week, we announced the Supreme Court’s decision in Skilling v. U.S. The Court held that 18 U.S.C. § 1346, the honest services law that the government has been using to prosecute nearly everything as a federal crime, applies only to bribery and kickback schemes.

The honest services fraud statute simply defines “scheme or artifice to defraud” as used in the mail- and wire fraud statutes to “include a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” Congress enacted this statute quickly after the Supreme Court, in McNally, held that the fraud statutes were “limited in scope to the protection of property rights.” Congress intended to incorporate pre-McNally case law that had recognized fiduciary duties as intangible rights to honest services and a breach of those duties as fraud.

The majority’s rationale for limiting the honest services fraud statute to only bribes and kickbacks was that such cases constituted the “core” of pre-McNally honest services fraud cases and that statutes should be construed, where possible, rather than invalidated. Because, the Court said, circuit conflicts and disagreements regarding honest services fraud cases were primarily outside the bribery and kickback scheme cases, limiting the application of the statute to those cases would avoid vagueness troubles.

The government argued that undisclosed self-dealing cases should be included, but the Court held that the relative infrequency of and intercircuit inconsistencies regarding such cases disallowed the statute’s application to undisclosed self-dealing. In a lengthy footnote, the Court indicated numerous questions Congress would need to clearly address to include such cases in the statute.

Justice Scalia, an open critic of the honest services fraud statute, disagreed with the majority’s limitation of honest services fraud to bribery and kickback schemes. In his concurring opinion, he argued that the Court had no precedent for “paring down” a statute to save it from invalidity and that, even with the limitation, the statute remains unconstitutionally vague. Although the Court clarifies what acts constitute a breach of the “honest services” obligation, the statute and case law do not clearly determine the character of the fiduciary capacity to which the restriction applies. What is the source of fiduciary obligations; who qualifies as a fiduciary; and is anything beyond a breach of fiduciary duty necessary for conviction?

As Justice Scalia recognized, the majority’s decision fails to resolve a host of issues surrounding the honest services doctrine. For this reason, litigation surrounding the meaning of this amorphous doctrine will not end with the Court’s decision in Skilling. Also, by extending the Yates decision to cases on direct appeal, the impact of the favorable ruling in Mr. Skilling’s case is yet to be determined.

While we are relieved that the previously outrageous reach of this statute has finally been limited, we are disappointed that Justice Scalia’s analysis did not gain the support of the majority of the Court.