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Litigation News | 2020

Battling Corruption: Money and Justice

Mark Drummond


  • A reflection on working in a judicial system free of corruption.
  • One fortunate aspect of advocacy training is being invited to teach in other countries, which has taken me around the world. 
  • I returned from that trip so thankful to work in a system where what matters is evidence and advocacy.
Battling Corruption: Money and Justice
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Dear Colleague,

For this column I am going to depart from my usual “beat” of outlining trial tips and strategies. I should have written this column closer to Thanksgiving, for this column reflects my being thankful for a system of justice that, with rare exception, is devoid of corruption on the bench.

One fortunate aspect of advocacy training is being invited to teach in other countries. It has taken me around the world. For the most part, these forays into other legal systems have been interesting and rewarding. To a person, the advocates I have trained are serious, dedicated professionals.

However, some experiences have been discouraging. That discouragement comes from the fact that many advocates are practicing their craft in a corrupt system. I am not going to name the country since that is not the purpose of this column. In addition, I have been in more than one country where corruption is present in the judicial system.

The scene opens with me sitting in a chair next to another trainer who had conducted trainings in this country many times before. Through translation, the advocates were being polled on issues in their justice system. When asked about corruption, many did not want to respond for fear of doing so in public. From time to time, a person not affiliated with the course would come in and just sit, or sit and take pictures of the participants.

In one session, a person came up and put a small recording device on the front table before a lecture. One of the organizers removed it and told him he could not record the lecture. The person with the recording device was not an advocate taking the course. We were told by the organizers that the secret police would sometimes send people in to monitor what was being said.

More than 90 percent of the advocates told us they had been involved in a case where a judge had been bribed. At that point I turned to my host and whispered, “If that is true, then everything I am teaching them is worthless. Even the greatest advocacy cannot overcome corruption.” He whispered back, “I couldn’t disagree with you more.” So does advocacy matter in a system that is corrupt?

Our trainings were in two different cities a little under 700 miles apart. The only common thread between them was the corruption in both places. The local bar leaders and local trainer were inspiring. Many had been jailed several times for exercising the freedom of speech. A journalist joined us who also had been jailed for commenting on the judicial system. He talked to the assembled advocates about the role they play in bringing about reform.

It was after the journalist spoke that our host started his argument to me on why advocacy mattered. He explained that the media were reporting more and more on cases where it was apparent that some injustice had occurred. He argued that the greater the advocacy, the greater the apparent injustice when the verdict is a product of corruption. The last thing the reformers want is for a judge to be able to pin the adverse result on poor advocacy. That made sense to me.

When I spoke to the participants, I acknowledged that the American system is not perfect. It is not totally devoid of corruption. However, given their report on the percentage of their cases involving bribery, I said the percentage was probably reversed in the United States. Corruption in the United States is the rare exception, not the rule.

One amazing anecdote frames how commonplace corruption has become in their system. I was told that in one of the trainings, the bar leaders and the participants brainstormed ways to improve their judicial system. One advocate, with total sincerity, said that if he paid a bribe to a judge and the other side paid a higher bribe for a successful outcome, then he should get his bribe money back!

This leads me back to the title of this piece. While advocacy training, combined with media reporting, may be one aspect of reform, the most direct way to combat corruption is money. Judges must be paid a living wage. I was told that the wage for a judge in that country averaged around $350 per month.

When the discussion turned to judges’ pay, someone in the group asked if I had ever been offered or had taken a bribe. When I said I had not, the entire group applauded! It was viewed as a great accomplishment.

I stated that I was paid very well and could comfortably support my family. I further explained that I would not simply refuse a bribe, but that I was also ethically obligated to report it should I be offered one. In fact, a failure to report had the same possible consequences as actually taking a bribe. I outlined the consequences, such as removal from the bench, loss of pension, and jail time. Several of them gasped when I told them that judges had been jailed in the United States for taking bribes. I urged them to do an internet search on the term “Greylord” if anyone doubted me.

The bribing of judges to supplement their meager income from the government brought to mind a similar experience. I was traveling with a group of trainers overseas. We were in United Nations (U.N.) vehicles. On our way from the airport to the teaching site we could see flares set in the roadway every so often. The flares were set by the police who, although they never stopped a U.N. vehicle, would stop other cars. The police would look for infractions and demand money for passage past the roadblock. I was told they needed to do this to supplement their very meager incomes.

I returned from that trip so thankful to work in a system where what matters is evidence and advocacy. I felt sorry for the earnest, dedicated advocates who struggle in a system rife with corruption. I was proud of lawyers working pro bono on rule-of-law initiatives around the world. And finally, I was glad that advocacy training could be a part of the much-needed justice reform.