Corruption defined

New book focuses on how American judges make their decisions.


Charles Benjamin Schudson’s book, “Independence Corrupted: How America’s Judges Make Their Decisions,” is a far cry from a dry, clinical text, but rather a book that brings us into the heart of the judicial process so personally that we can virtually feel — as well as understand — how decisions are made, and the dangers of judicial corruption.

Schudson, a Wisconsin reserve judge emeritus, law professor, and Fulbright scholar, calls upon his experience as a former state and federal prosecutor and trial and appellate judge in both civil and criminal cases as fodder for his writing. He blends history and contemporary cases, law, and memoir into a book that is as compelling for concerned citizens as it is for lawyers, judges, students, legislators, and educators.

The writer illuminates various ways corruption occurs by taking us through gripping accounts of an array of cases including abortion, runaway children, sex predators, murder, and the insanity defense, corporate homicide, and white supremacists. He brings his insights home in a very personal manner by using his own vast experience to give us a peek into how judges — whether alone as trial judges or in small groups as appellate judges — make their decisions and why, as he writes, the process is “more art than science, more instinct than law.”

Through skillful writing, Schudson brings alive the often very human feelings and reactions these cases evoke. Each illustrates some aspect of corrupting forces. He says, “Most people understand the word corruption to be a bribe. That’s not how the founders understood it. As they defined it and I resurrected, a ‘corruption’ is probably more about what we would say today is a bias. It can be any factor that influences or alters what otherwise would be a decision based on the facts, the law, the merits.”

Some corruptions can be subtle such as ego, age, race, gender, conscious or unconscious prejudice, private imperative, ignorance, personal beliefs, one’s Myers-Briggs personality profile, and even what and when a judge eats, as a study Schudson cites has shown. But it’s the blatant corruptions that are imperiling the American judiciary through the influence of political ambition and campaign contributions. This is especially important to understand, because while 1.4 percent of cases are decided by appointed federal judges who have life tenure and guaranteed salaries, the remaining 98.6 percent made by thousands and thousands of state judges come to the bench through election or appointment in a quasi-political method, leaving the way rife for corruption as they are encumbered by campaign rhetoric and/or beholden to donors to ensure their electability.

Schudson writes, “Thus, political influence has come to America’s judiciary like never before. And … while other forms of corruption can compromise judicial independence, only political corruption can kill it.” He provides insight into what has created this dynamic with the four Supreme Court rulings allowing judicial campaign declarations and campaign contributions that have led, he argues, to the great interests of the people no longer being safe. He writes, “These Supreme Court decisions … are leaving our judges politically vulnerable and ethically compromised as never before … If states choose to continue electing their judges, their independence cannot recover.”

In the end of his book, Schudson writes about Germany’s many memorials that recall what happened when judicial independence died. However, he warns, “in America, it seems, we allow our memories to dim, as if we want to pretend that could never happen here. So we ignore our history of judicial corruptions and acquiescenses, from Japanese American internment to African American mass incarceration, and we have yet to recognize or respond to today’s unprecedented evisceration of judicial independence.”

“Independence Corrupted” is fascinating, intricate, enlightening, and sometimes disheartening. However, Schudson doesn’t leave us without hope, but rather puts forth a rallying cry for the judicial education and political reform needed to strengthen judicial independence. As he writes in closing, “So, Mr. Revere, saddle up for one more midnight ride.”

Charles Benjamin Schudson, “Independence Corrupted: How America’s Judges Make Their Decisions.” Schudson will talk about the book at the Vineyard Haven library on June 15 at 6 pm.