483 U. S. 350
June 24, 1987
Several governmental officials in Kentucky set up an elaborate scheme of bribery, kickbacks, and graft with a local insurance company. As one might expect, much of this chicanery was done through mail, and federal prosecution under the mail fraud statute proceeded accordingly. The corrupt Kentucky Democrats protested, claiming that the mail fraud statute did not technically cover their situation. No money or property was stolen, per se; All parties involved with the scheme consented, and so no one was wrongfully deprived of anything tangible.
The Court ruled 7-2 that the mail fraud law was indeed inapplicable to McNally and friends. White rejected the argument that the citizenry of Kentucky was defrauded of an intangible right to honest government, finding no such clear language in the statute. Zipping through legal history, the Court said that “defraud” was usually understood to mean only wrongful deprivation of money or property. While the statute’s language of “any scheme or artifice to defraud” was ambiguous, and could be interpreted broadly, White chose not to do so, citing the rule of lenity that ambiguity should favor the criminal defendant.
Stevens filed a dissent, and was joined by O’Connor. He showed that lower courts had almost unanimously interpreted the statute to cover political corruption (including election rigging) for a good while. Even more damning, the Supreme Court itself interpreted “defraud” to cover political corruption when the word was used in a very similar and roughly contemporaneous statute. Thus, there was no good argument for invoking the rule of lenity. Worse yet, purely as a matter of both textualism and original intent, the Court’s reading of the mail fraud law fell woefully short. The reading destroyed the intention of Congress to protect the postal system’s integrity, and rendered the “any scheme or artifice” language mere surplusage.
This is yet another case where Stevens was very right, and most everyone else was very, very wrong. I have to admit that reading a whole year’s worth of cases is good for destroying cartoonish caricatures that the mind has about individual Justices. No matter how bad a Justice may be overall, you’re always going to find a few gems.