WASHINGTON -- It is not a crime for elected politicians to seek campaign donations from those for whom they do specific favors in legislation or government action, the Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, yesterday.
The federal crime of "extortion," the court declared, only occurs when a politician uses actual threats to get money or makes a direct deal to get paid in return for an official favor.
The court said it would require a "quid pro quo" to prosecute an elected official for extortion when money has been paid as a campaign donation.
It said it was not ruling, at this time, on whether it would take the same view if an elected official received gifts, meals, travel expenses or "other items of value."
A quid pro quo would be a promise of an official favor in return for the money.
The ruling overturned the conviction of a West Virginia state legislator, Robert L. McCormick, for seeking money from a group representing foreign doctors practicing in the state after he helped promote legislation to let the doctors continue their work without a formal license.
The government charged that Mr. McCormick, after doing some legislative favors for the foreign doctors, told a lobbyist for them in 1984 that he had not heard from the doctors. The lobbyist then arranged for delivery of cash -- in $100 bills -- to Mr. McCormick in sealed envelopes.
After getting those and other donations from the doctors' group, he sponsored a bill to give them permanent right to practice, which passed. He did not report the donations on his income tax return.
Convicted of extortion and of income tax evasion, Mr. McCormick was fined $50,000 and required to make restitution of $900 in donations.
Yesterday's ruling requires lower courts to reconsider his case, applying the new requirement on what it takes to commit extortion as a federal crime.
The case was McCormick vs. U.S. (No. 89-1918), with Justice Byron R. White writing the main opinion.
The court issued two other significant rulings yesterday as it continued its stepped-up pace toward summer recess within six weeks:
* In a unanimous decision, it curbed the right of one spouse to wipe out divorce debts to another spouse by filing for bankruptcy.
Specifically, the court ruled in a Wisconsin case, if one spouse is ordered to pay funds to the other as part of a divorce decree, and that debt is secured by property awarded to the first spouse, the debt cannot be wiped out by the first spouse's filing for bankruptcy.
The case was Farrey vs. Sanderfoot (No. 90-350).
* The court ruled, 7-2, that when a police officer asks a motorist's permission to search a car for drugs and the motorist agrees, the officer may feel free to open any closed containers found inside the car.
The case was Florida vs. Jimeno (No. 90-622).