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Top Court Hears Conrad Black Appeal on Anti-Fraud Law

A lawyer for former media baron Conrad Black urged the Supreme Court Tuesday to overturn his fraud conviction, and several justices asked whether the federal law at issue was too vague.

Conrad Black arriving at a federal courthouse on June 18, 2007.
M. Spencer Green
Conrad Black arriving at a federal courthouse on June 18, 2007.

The Canadian-born Black, a member of Britain's House of Lords, has been in prison since March 2008, when he began serving a 6 1/2-year sentence for fraud and obstruction of justice.

Attorney Miguel Estrada, representing Black and two ex-colleagues who were found guilty of defrauding shareholders of one-time newspaper publishing giant Hollinger International Inc, argued before the Supreme Court that all convictions in the case must be overturned.

A U.S. jury in Chicago found the three men guilty of swindling the company out of $6.1 million by giving themselves illegal bonuses.

Hollinger was once the world's third-largest publisher of English-language newspapers.

At issue in the case is a 28-word law that Congress adopted in 1988 that makes it illegal for public officials and executives to commit fraud by depriving those they work for of the right to "honest services." The law has been used in a number of high-profile business cases, including that of former Enron Corp Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling, whose case the Supreme Court is expected to hear in March.

It also has been used in a wide range of public corruption cases, including those of disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and two former Illinois governors, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.

The Supreme Court Tuesday considered two cases -- one involving Black and the other involving former Alaska legislator Bruce Weyhrauch, who was charged under the law.

Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly criticized the law for being "inherently vague" and said Congress should have been more specific.

He said that not even the Justice Department can figure out exactly what activities the law covers. "I don't see how you can expect the average citizen to figure it out," Scalia told the government lawyer.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said vagueness "is the lurking problem here" while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said lower courts have been "massively confused" about the law's reach.

Justice Stephen Breyer expressed concern that the law could be used to prosecute a person merely because he were not working or acting in the best interests of his employer, such as an employee who reads the Daily Racing Form on the job.

Out of 150 million workers in the U.S., "I think possibly 140 (million) of them would flunk your test," Breyer told Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, a Justice Department lawyer who defended the law.

The justices repeatedly asked Dreeben how a ruling in Black's case could affect Skilling. Dreeben said he wanted to wait until Skilling's attorneys file their written briefs.

Chief Justice John Roberts told Dreeben it would be "very unusual" for the court to agree with the government in one case and then in the next case announce the law was unconstitutional.

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