New Decision: Applying McDonnell on 2241 Review [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Robert Cordaro v. United States—Criminal Law (corruption/habeas)—affirming—Chagares

Robert Cordaro, a former Lackawanna County commissioner, allegedly wasted no time using his office for private financial gain, chiefly by influencing the awarding of contracts. Classic! He was convicted of bribery, Hobbs Act extortion, and racketeering. After the Third Circuit affirmed his conviction, Cordaro unsuccessfully challenged it via 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

But then the Supreme Court decided McDonnell v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2355 (2016), which narrowed the definition of “official act”—a development, Cordaro claimed, that rendered his conduct non-criminal. He initially tried to file a second 2255 motion, but his application was denied. So instead, Cordaro filed an actual federal  habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, which he could do only if 2255 was inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detentionthe “Dorsainvil” exception, which applies when subsequent statutory developments have rendered a person’s underlying conduct non-criminal. The District Court agreed with Cordaro that he was entitled to take advantage of the Dorsainvil exception, but denied his petition on the merits, concluding that he had failed to show that no reasonable juror would have convicted him if properly instructed under McDonnell.

The Third Circuit affirms. First, Judge Chagares holds that the Dorsainvil exception was proper here, as a retroactive application of McDonnell could conceivably render Cordaro’s conduct non-criminal (but see more below).

Second, Judge Chagares agrees with the District Court that, even under McDonnell, Cordaro had failed to show his conduct was non-criminal. Cordaro used his influence in the awarding and maintenance of contracts, specifically agreed to act on the contracts in question, and apparently received direct payments from some of the contractors. “Taking this evidence together,” Judge Chagares writes, “would some reasonable juror conclude that Cordaro committed official acts as defined by McDonnell? The answer is yes.” To Cordaro’s point that the various firms contracted with independent agencies, not the county itself, Judge Chagares concludes that the flow of authority makes no difference. “[W]hatever the chain of technical legal authority . . . there is ample evidence that Cordaro agreed to, could, and did influence who kept and lost contracts with county entities.” Judge Chagares likens this aspect of the case to the Court’s recent decision in United States v. Repak, where the appellant had argued, unsuccessfully, that making recommendations about contracts was different than directly acting on them.

At least one aspect of Cordaro’s argument appears to have been affected by the constricted procedural posture: he argued that erroneous jury instructions could have led the jury to convict him for the noncriminal meetings, as opposed to the influencing of contracts. Since this isn’t a direct appeal, but is instead a collateral attack under 2241, the standard is what a properly instructed jury would do under McDonnell, not what the actual jury in the case actually did.

Finally, the Court defers decision on several open questions:

  • Whether 2255(e), the safety valve that allows for the Dorsainvil exception to function, is a jurisdictional restriction that affects whether the District Court can entertain a 2241 petition on the merits from a federal prisoner.
  • Whether McDonnell applies retroactively on collateral review at all (the government conceded that it did, but its concession does not actually govern, and the Court says only that McDonnell “arguably satisfies” the retroactivity test).
  • Whether the “official acts” holding of McDonnell applies to Hobbs Act extortion and racketeering (which neither party questioned) or § 666 bribery (which was contested; the Court assumes it does because the claim fails anyway).

Joining Judge Chagares were Judge Ambro and Judge Greenaway. AUSA Stephen Cerutti argued for the government and Nixon Peabody’s Brian T. Kelly argued for Cordaro.