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Judicial corruption

posted Dec 24, 2009, 7:25 AM by Nancy Swan   [ updated Dec 24, 2009, 9:26 AM by Thomas Swan ]
The New York Times reported on December 23, that "A group of judges, political officials and lawyers, led by the retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has begun a campaign to persuade states to choose judges on the basis of merit, rather than their ability to win an election." 

This smoke-screen-and-mirrors- initiative is aptly described as an initiative to "fight judicial corruption, and the perception of corruption."     Unfortunately that is what the elected system of judges was supposed to do.

This initiative will fail because it focuses on the "perception" of corruption, but fails to correct underlying problems that foster corruption, including  
  • lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight over state ethical commissions,
  • conflicts of interest of those selecting and retaining judges, and
  • failure to restrict money, gifts, and perks to judges by those having an interest in court decisions.
In 2007 Mississippi attorney Paul Minor and former Judge John Whitfield were convicted for their part in a judicial bribery scheme.   At issue were over $100,000 in loans guarantees to the Judge Whitfield that were later paid off in cash by Minor while Whitfield was hearing Minor's cases.   Minor claimed to the court that these loans were "gifts" among friends.

According to the HALT Judicial Accountability 2008 Report Card, no state restricts gifts to judges and few states have above passing grades for transparency and financial disclosure. 

Prior to the convictions, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance secretly dismissed two complaints calling for an investigation into Minor's influence over Whitfield's decisions.   The Mississippi Commission has continued to refuse to sanction former Judge Whitfield.  According to HALT, most states continue to protect  judges rather than police them by shrouding the complaint process in secrecy and by failing to administer meaningful sanctions for misconduct.

O'Connor's initiative is an important beginning, but the will not end the perception of corruption will continue as long  judges protect judges behind a veil of secrecy.   The proposed initiative will not curb judicial corruption as long as judges are allowed to accept money, gifts, and perks from interested parties.