Explaining (the lack of) corruption in the U.S. federal judiciary

The United States judiciary has a history with corruption. Corruption pervaded every aspect of pre-revolution America, from the customs enforcers up to the colonial judges. Corruption in the United States even worsened a century after the Revolution, with politicians during the late 19th century taking “spectacularly handsome bribes from corporations and demand[ing] kickbacks as the helping hand they extended often came with an open palm.” Early twentieth century America, in many ways, had systemic corruption similar to that seen in modern developing countries.

Yet in spite of the environment around them, the federal judiciary – more or less since day one – has been mostly corruption-free. As Professor Mathew C. Stephenson of Harvard Law School observed in A history of corruption in the United States, even during the quite corrupt 19th century, “at least at the federal level, the institutions of justice – courts and prosecutors – seemed relatively clean and basically functional.” This raises a question: How did the federal judiciary remain relatively free from corruption, especially during the first century of the country’s existence, when corruption pervaded so many aspects of American society, including state and local courts?

According to Zakary Meskell, there are two broad categories of explanation: historical and structural. In a recently published article, he analyses these historical and structural clues and tries to shed light on why the U.S. federal judiciary has succeeded in keeping to corruption to a minimum. Better understanding the factors that have contributed to a high level of integrity shall also offer lessons for other countries looking to clean up their judicial systems.

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