Supreme Court Justices Compare Bribes to Taking Teacher to Cheesecake


The Supreme Court, amid an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy pertaining to unreported gifts to justices, debated on Monday whether a contractor making a $13,000 gratuity to a politician is similar to taking a teacher to the Cheesecake Factory.

In 2012, James Synder was elected mayor of the Northwest Indiana town of just under 38,000 people. Synder, who was struggling to keep his own business afloat and was behind on taxes, oversaw the bidding process for a contract to buy new garbage trucks for the town. The contract, which was worth over $1.1 million, went to a local company, and the final round of papers were inked. One month later in January 2014, the trucking company, Great Lakes Peterbilt, sent Snyder $13,000 for what he later claimed were consulting services.

In 2019, Synder found his second term cut prematurely when a federal jury convicted of him of bribery. Although he appealed and was granted a new trial, the former mayor was convicted again in March 2021 and sentenced to 21 months in prison.

The case found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to review an appeals court decision affirming the 2021 conviction of the former mayor of Portage — transforming the small-time corruption case into a national issue that has the potential to legalize corporations rewarding public officials in exchange for lucrative government favors.

The Supreme Court has consistently worked to narrow the definition of corruption, but the timing of the case and its subject matter is interesting: Over the past year, the court has faced unprecedented scrutiny over revelations that justices have received and failed to disclose luxury gifts.

As The Lever recently pointed out, high-profile corruption cases in other states have been put on hold as prosecutors wait to see how the Supreme Court rules in Snyder v. United States.

On Monday, in a debate peppered with hypothetical meals to the Cheesecake Factory, gift baskets, and Starbucks gift cards, justices appeared poised to side with the convicted Indiana mayor.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the facts of this case were great for the government, but was hesitant to subject 19 million state and local officials to the law, which has been on the books for decades.

Justice Elena Kagan chimed in, supporting his statement. “This statute applies not just to government officials but to pretty much, like, every important institution in America,” she said, painting an example of a billionaire hospital patient given preferential treatment in hopes of receiving a large donation.

The “problem is the word ‘corruptly’ then creates enormous uncertainty and vagueness about where the line is drawn,” Kavanaugh argued. “You don’t know if the concert tickets, the game tickets, the gift card to Starbucks, whatever, where is the line, and so there’s vagueness.”

“Counsel, how does anyone in the real world know the line?” Justice Neil Gorsuch mused to Colleen Sinzdak, the lawyer arguing for the government. “Put aside billionaires and hospitals. Deal with small gifts with teachers, doctors, police officers, all the time.”

Gorsuch, seemingly unable to differentiate between a slice of peanut butter cup fudge ripple and $13,000 gift, continued to offer hypotheticals. “How does this statute give fair notice to anyone in the world as to — and I hate to do it, but I’m going to — the difference between the Cheese Factory [sic]…” he said, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett broke in to quip, “Inn at Little Washington.”

“And the Inn at Little Washington. Thank you, thank you,” Gorsuch replied. “How does anyone know?”


As the justices devolved into semantics, Sinzdak said, “What you’re all talking about is these fringe cases,” adding those cases would be “really hard for the government to show consciousness of wrongdoing.”

Later on, Sinzdak explained, “I guess I’m not kind of including in here the kind of apple for teacher and the hypotheticals that you see in petitioner’s brief. They’re just not even on the radar in terms of the government. What we’re looking for is, again, corrupt acceptance of a payment with the intent to be rewarded in connection with business or transactions worth at least $5,000.” 



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