Ruling for two prominent corporate executives in prison for fraud, the Supreme Court on Thursday dramatically narrowed the scope of a law often used by federal prosecutors in corruption cases. The justices were unanimous in calling at least the broadest interpretation of the law, which makes it a crime “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services,” unconstitutionally vague. The decisions call into question the convictions of Jeffrey K. Skilling, a former chief executive of Enron, the Houston energy company, and Conrad M. Black, the newspaper executive convicted of defrauding his media company, Hollinger International.
The decisions may also have implications for many other cases, including those of former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, whose trial for violating the law is underway in Chicago, and Joseph L. Bruno, once one of the most prominent politicians in New York who was convicted of federal corruption charges in December. The law has been the subject of frequent criticism in the lower courts for giving potential defendants too little guidance and prosecutors too much discretion. “How can the public be expected to know what the statute means when the judges and prosecutors themselves do not know, or must make it up as they go along?” Judge Dennis Jacobs of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, asked in a 2003 dissent.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in writing the majority decision in both the Skilling and Black cases on Thursday, said the law must be limited to the core offenses of bribes and kickbacks. Mr. Skilling’s conduct, she said from the bench, “entailed no bribe or kickback.”