In its recent decision in McDonnell v. United States, a case concerning corruption charges against the former Governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, the Supreme Court faced a seemingly simple question of statutory interpretation: what constituted an “official act” for the purposes of the bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201(a)(3). In reality, not only did it answer a question far more complicated, but also, it provided far more than a simple answer.
In its attempt to reinforce democracy, the Court failed. Instead, it validated a pernicious definition of access, in which paid-for access, pay-to-play schemes, and bribery are the norm. Specifically, in claiming that this maligned form of access was necessary for a functioning democracy, the Court endorsed political norms that are, in fact, corrosive to society: stratified access to politicians and by association, democratic institutions. The Court ignored the reality of pervasive and systemic inequality—ranging from political, economic, social, and racial—in contemporary American society and the effect that inequality has on access. However, the Court did not arrive there alone—the many amici filing on behalf of the petitioner blinded it—at least partially—to the aforementioned realities and public opinion.