Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Is This a Federal Crime?

A recent Sixth Circuit decision in United States v. Madden (here) discusses a federal prosecution for vote-buying, in violation of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973(c)(i) (here).  The defendant paid three people to vote for a candidate in a local primary election, and in that same election there were candidates for federal office on the ballot.  The defendant did not pay the people to vote for (or against) anyone running for federal office.  The vote-buying/false registration provision has an important limitation on federal jurisdiction:

Provided, however, That this provision shall be applicable only to general, special, or primary elections held solely or in part for the purpose of selecting or electing any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, presidential elector, Member of the United States Senate, Member of the United States House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, Guam, or the Virgin Islands, or Resident Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately for Madden, his plea agreement waived any right to appeal his plea or sentence, and his after-the-fact motion to vacate the plea by challenging the federal prosecution of this crime could not be heard because the Sixth Circuit did not have jurisdiction over the case. 

Despite his counsel's apparent failure to challenge federal jurisdiction, which could have been done by entering a conditional plea, the case raises an interesting federalism issue regarding the power of the federal government to prosecute conduct that does not involve the election of a federal official.  While the Supreme Court has been quite forgiving in its approach to federal jurisdiction in corruption cases (e.g. Sabri), elections may be different, although I am out of my league on the constitutional issues related to elections.  I think a decent argument can be made that the jurisdictional provision limiting prosecutions to elections "for the purpose" of electing federal officials would only cover payments (or other acts specified in the statute) related to those offices.  The counter-argument would be that, similar to the federal funds requirement for Section 666 prosecutions or use of the mails for Sec. 1341 cases, the presence of the federal office is a "hook" for jurisdiction, and any corruption in connection with the election -- even if it only relates directly to a local election -- will have some effect on the federal election, and therefore the federal government has an interest in protecting the integrity of elections involving federal officials. (ph)


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