United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Sun-Diamond Growers of California
LOCATION:Alden’s Workplace

DOCKET NO.: 98-131
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 526 US 398 (1999)
ARGUED: Mar 02, 1999
DECIDED: Apr 27, 1999

Eric W. Bloom – Argued the cause for the respondent
Robert W. Ray – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Sun-Diamond Growers of California (Sun-Diamond), an agricultural trade association, was charged with violating a federal statute that prohibited the giving of anything valuable to a present, past, or future official “for or because of any official act performed or to be performed by such public official.” Sun-Diamond’s indictment alleged that it gave illegal gratuities to former Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy while he was considering two matters in which Sun-Diamond had a vested interest. The indictment, however, did not claim a connection between the gratuities in question and either of the matters under Espy’s review. Based on this lack of connectivity, Sun-Diamond challenged its indictment but lost in district court. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reserved part of the district court decision and the government appealed. Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Must there be a specific link between the giving of a gratuity to a government official and the latter’s performance of a specific act in order to sustain an illegal-gratuity-statute conviction?

Media for United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 02, 1999 in United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 27, 1999 in United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 98-131, United States versus Sun-Diamond Growers of California will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This case comes to us on certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The United States through an independent counsel indicted respondent Sun-Diamond Growers for giving gifts to former Secretary of Agriculture, Michael Espy, in violation of the illegal gratuity statute 18 U.S.C Section 201(c)(1)(A).

That statute prohibits giving or receiving gifts “for or because of any official act performed or to be performed” by a public official.

At trial the jury was instructed that respondent violated the statute as he gave gifts to Espy because of his official position.

Furthermore, the jury was explicitly told that the government need not prove a link between the gifts and any particular official act.

The Court of Appeals reversed this conviction and remanded for a new trial.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm.

The illegal gratuity statute Section 201(c) is part of that Section the United States Code that also contains the bribery statute Section 201(b).

The latter requires proof that something of value was given or received “to influence” any official act.

It requires a quid pro quo, the act in exchange for the gift.

The Illegal Gratuity Statute before us here on the other hand requires a showing only that something of value was given for or because of any official act.

It does not require a quid pro quo, but prohibits rewards for acts already taken or for future acts which an official has already committed to take.

Both statutes however require a connection between the gift and an official act.

The language that Section 201(c) uses for or because of any official act is certainly susceptible of the indeterminate meaning urged here by the independent counsel and by Justice Department as amicus.

So that it would apply to a gift given for any unspecified official act, or more generally because of the recipient’s official position.

One can ask, for example, do you like any composer?

Meaning, do you like all composers, no matter what their identity, or one can ask do you like any composer?

Meaning, do you like any particular composer?

The latter more specifying meaning of any seems to us the more normal one.

Moreover, the consequences of the government’s interpretation are quite extreme.

It would criminalize, for example, a high school principal’s gift of a school baseball cap to the Secretary of Education by reason of his office on the occasion of the latter’s visit to the school.

When Congress has wanted to adopt such a broad prohibition on gift giving it has done so explicitly.

For example, other provisions of Chapter 11 of Title 18, the Chapter entitled Bribery Graft and Conflicts of Interest, make it a crime to give or receive any supplementation of an executive official’s salary without regard to the purpose of the payment, or for a bank employee to give a bank examiner, or for a bank examiner to receive from a bank employee any longer gratuity without regard to the purpose.

These provisions make their broad and categorical suite quite clear.

We think it unlikely that the phrase for or because of any official act was meant to achieve the same goal.

Finally, and perhaps most important, a narrow rather than a sweeping prohibition is more compatible with the fact that Section 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.

Various provisions of the United States Court, for example, make it a crime to give or receive compensation in consideration for a federal employee’s representational assistance to any one involved in the proceeding in which the United States has a direct and substantial interest.

Or a federal employee to act as agent or attorney for any one appearing before virtually any government tribunal in connection with the matter in which the United States has a direct and substantial interest.

Or various types of federal employees to engage in various activities after completion of their federal service, etcetera.

Antonin Scalia:

The criminal statutes are just the tip of the iceberg.

Each branch of the Federal Government has detailed rules and regulations governing its employees’ receipts of gratuities.

All of these regulations and some of the statutes contain exceptions for various kinds of gratuities given by various donors for various purposes.

Many of those exceptions would be snares for the unwary, given that there are no exceptions to the broad prohibitions that the government claims is imposed by Section 201(c)(1)(A).

This is in short an area where precisely targeted prohibitions are common place, and where more general prohibitions are qualified by numerous exceptions.

Given that reality, a statute in this field that can linguistically be interpreted to be either a meat axe or a scalpel should reasonably be taken to be the latter.

Absent the text that clearly requires it, we ought not to expand this one piece of the regulatory puzzle so dramatically as to make many other pieces misfits.

Thus, the District Court’s instructions in this case were erroneous.

They allowed the jury to convict on a showing that gifts were motivated by Secretary Espy’s capacity to act in any unspecified matters affecting respondent.

The jury did not have to find a connection between any particular gift and any particular official act, which is what the law requires.

That error, moreover, was not harmless.

Accordingly, we affirm the DC Circuit’s decision, remanding the case for a new trial.

The decision of the Court is unanimous.