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A judiciary without honesty has little chance of executing its moral and constitutional duties, no matter how many rules of ethics exist.  This is true in the United States, where the judiciary is afforded wide discretion.  Facts and laws require interpretation; justice and equity require judgment.  We count on honest judges to navigate our ship of justice through dangerous waters.  We expect judges to be honest because we establish institutions that incentivize honesty.  Despite the critical importance of maintaining judicial integrity, there is much to say about how commonplace corruption is in our courts.

Corruption has a variety of faces, bribery being only one of them, another being political corruption, much more unattainable and imprecise.  Its broad range of action enables it not only to influence the judicial system, but all the sectors of state administration as well.  Bribery is one of the most pernicious forms of corruption.  It can purchase favors in high-stakes cases and does not necessitate any personal or professional relationship between the briber and judge.  Corruption’s covert nature means that only a small fraction of it is ever exposed. 

Judicial corruption can be understood as the selling and purchasing of legal decisions.  Understanding judicial bribery requires understanding the incentives that exist for parties or lawyers to purchase these decisions and for judges to sell them.  Illicit interferences with justice can also be violent, particularly when perpetrated directly by members of organized crime.  These forays are intended to secure specific objectives, such as the closing of a particular case, or the acquittal of a given individual.

By seeking impunity, corruption has a devastating effect on the judicial system as a whole.  The California Judiciary is thought to be among the most corrupt of all US states.  There should not be immunity for judges.  When we are told that certain government officials are off limits, it undermines public confidence in government.  Immunity lets corrupt judges off the hook for bad behavior. 

Over the last several decades, federal courts nationwide have consistently ruled against plaintiffs who tried to sue judges for civil damages over decisions they made or misconduct issues.  The courts granted immunity to judges under the guidance of the United States Supreme Court.  California, which created the first judicial disciplinary body in the country in 1960, had a dismissal rate of 98 percent.  It did not suspend or remove a single judge in 2013 or 2014 and acted just once over the last five years, removing a sitting judge in 2012.

The judicial branch has a decisive role in the fight against corruption and establishes that in order to carry out this role effectively, the judicial branch itself must be free of corruption, and that its members must act with integrity.  One solution to minimizing the corruption in our judicial system is to create specialized anti-corruption courts.  In the United States, corruption is so common that it is expected when ordinary businesses or citizens interact with government officials.  The endpoint of political corruption is a kleptocracy-literally “rule by thieves”.  If you want to educate yourself about the pitfalls of the United States legal system, you must check out the book Stack the Legal Odds in Your Favor, which also makes a wonderful gift for the holidays and at any time of the year.