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Buying Judges
"Corrupt judges can destroy what's left of our American democracy."

-- Henry Rothblatt,
Watergate Defense Counsel

The Finest Judges Money Can Buy


Published in 1973, this book by Charles R. Ashman documents 74 cases of judges who took bribes, kickbacks and payoffs, and who appointed relatives and political cronies to lucrative positions as receivers and executors who in turn bled the resources of near-bankrupt corporations and estates for personal gain.  Reprinted below are the prologue and introductory statements to the first eight chapters of the book, which should be consulted for details of individual cases.
"I usually accept bribes from both sides so that tainted money
can never influence my decision."

— Sir Francis Bacon,
Lord Chancellor of England


American justice is choking on judicial pollution. The following cases are documented proof that it is no longer a question of occasional corruption, but a decided pattern of conflicts of interest, chronic bribery, profound abuse of office, loathsome nepotism, infamous sexual perversions and pernicious payoffs. The American public can no longer retain an attitude of vacant apathy as incorrigible corruption destroys the effectiveness of our system of justice. So what else is new!

There are many in life whose expertise and integrity we take for granted. At least we don't risk challenging them while they are doing their thing. The doctor in surgery, the lawyer in court, the TV repairman and the mother all escape stern scrutiny either because we are brainwashed as to their superiority or embarrassed to ask a question.

But one group in our society epitomizes the mysticism of superiority. The courtroom is his dominion. Our lives and property are his jurisdiction. We robe him in black and announce his arrival in medieval French incantations. He is physically elevated amidst ceremonial architecture to further enhance his exalted status in life. He presides. He listens. He sleeps. He administers. He punishes instantly for any minor deviation from the protocol of his sanctimonious court or any insult to his person, and he assumes an imperial air when he sentences. No one in our society, including the president, exercises equal summary power or more censorial prerogatives.

Unfortunately, we have never taken the trouble to establish an effective way to select judges. First, we have never been able to agree whether the public is intelligent enough to sift through political promises and elect qualified men and women to judge us, or whether other officials we've elected should be given the right to appoint the proprietors of justice. Second, even among those who have agreed whether elected or appointed judges are better, the methods of selection vary.

No judge is outrageously corrupt by himself. For every judge that money can buy there must be buyers and brokers. Most of the judicial corrupters are relatives of judges, practicing lawyers or their predatory intermediaries. All the bribes paid or tendered in any one year could undoubtedly eliminate much of the poverty that breeds the crimes that outrage America. And the cost of exposing and trying corrupt judges compounds society's debt.

In this country, we believe, or at least claim to believe, in equality before the law. But those who have the money or the contacts, or both, exert a judicial pressure that eliminates equality and promotes a double standard of justice. For there are those who stand before the bar relying only on their lawyers and their hopes. And there are those whose cases are more clandestinely and hurriedly resolved by a fix.

In 1924, the American Bar Association promulgated the Canons of Judicial Ethics. Those appointed by Chief Justice William Howard Taft preambled their juridic decree by declaring that "ethical standards tend to become habits of life" and set forth a "reminder for judges indicating what the public has a right to expect from them." The judicial canons were merely the codification of moral guidelines that date back at least to Deuteronomy: "Thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous." Unfortunately, since loading, the canons have fired mostly blanks.

We can no longer dismiss cases of corruption on the bench as isolated indiscretions. There are too many, too often. This book describes over seventy classic examples of judicial pollution. Unfortunately, for each case discussed there is a handful we have not included, and for each handful not included, there are scores yet undiscovered.

Witness the dignified New England judge who paid the fine for a defendant appearing before him and then took him home for a sexual encounter — a peccadillo which the judge admitted. And, of course, there was the Louisiana judge who presided at the Kennedy-Shaw conspiracy trial. The jurist was later arrested for pimping, showing pornographic films, gambling and the rest. Scandal shattered the quiet life of the people of Oklahoma a few years ago when the majority of their own supreme court was convicted of having shamelessly wholesaled justice for years.

Recently, a former governor who had been appointed to the second highest appellate court in the nation was convicted and disgraced in Illinois. Judge Kerner had been the pinnacle of integrity, or at least he had appeared to be.

This past year, one of New York's most distinguished statesmen climaxed his career of public service by his election to that state's supreme court. Weeks before he was to be sworn in, justice-elect Seymour R. Thaler was indicted for "fencing" stolen United States Treasury bills worth a few hundred thousand dollars. Thus, the citizens of New York were denied the unique experience of Thaler's judicial pronouncements.

The black-robed Mafia is an even more mercenary intrusion in American justice than its Sicilian counterpart. Among the finest judges money can buy are those who have peddled justice for payoffs and yielded to pressure from organized crime and other "benevolent fraternities." One of the most common offenses among judges who enforce laws one day and ignore laws the next, is income tax evasion. Their defenses are novel. In one case, the judge claimed he was so busy trying cases that he simply forgot to pay his taxes for five years.

Scandalous corruption seems to be contagious among judges in certain states. Several members of the Oklahoma Supreme Court were charged with bribery, income tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe each other. And similar patterns may be noted in New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

Certainly the most shocking aspect of "the finest judges money can buy" is the casual reaction of the public and our state and federal officials to judicial corruption. It seems as if there is a reluctance to punish any judge for fear that the public will lose its respect for all judges. Thus, the punishment is directed at the community at large in the form of such mild disciplinary action against the guilty, that numerous judges found guilty of serious offenses continue to sit in judgment of us.

There has recently been a rash of cases involving jurists accused of abusing criminal bond procedures for their bailbondsmen friends. In no less than fifteen states, investigations have revealed violations of state bonding practices that enable the bondsmen, in effect, to determine if an accused criminal should be released. On June 11, 1973 the California Judicial Qualification Commission recommended only censure of two Los Angeles County judges who issued numerous blank, presigned release forms to close friends who happen to be bondsmen.

A seventeen-page report urged the California Supreme Court to "severely and publicly censure" Superior Judge Leopoldo Sanchez, and merely "censure" Municipal Judge Antonio E. Chavez.

Judge Sanchez remained on full salary but was not allowed to sit on the bench while his case was under study. And now, if the Supreme Court follows the Commission's recommendation, the effect will be that Sanchez received a six-month paid holiday as a result of the censure. In the meantime, he is back on the bench.

The Commission's investigation proved that a Los Angeles bondsman named Joey Barnum had used, and sold to other bondsmen, hundreds of blank forms signed by his friend, Judge Sanchez. The Judicial Commission decided that "what Judge Sanchez did appears to be the result of incredibly bad judgment and his inability to say 'no' to his friend, Joey Barnum."

One California lawyer reacted by promising that the next time he has a case in front of judge Sanchez he will offer a novel defense. He will argue that his client "just could not say 'no' to his friend and that is why he robbed the bank."

On occasion, judges have even been charged with crimes resulting in death. At the turn of the century, one of Alabama's more popular circuit judges, John B. Tally, conspired with his family to murder a neighbor who was having an affair with the judge's sister-in-law. The judge and his brother-in-law gunned down the offender and utilized the then modern railroad and telegraph to cover their tracks. The Supreme Court of Alabama, in a confusing decision, ruled that the popular Scottsboro jurist had not neglected his judicial duties by participating in the murder plot. Nevertheless, they found him guilty of aiding and abetting and removed him from the bench.

Politicians have attempted to impeach members of the Supreme Court of the United States. On only one occasion were they successful, but there have been resignations and lingering doubts. Some people are still devoted to impeaching Justice William O. Douglas.

And then there are those judges, named in this book, who are still sitting in judgment of others. This is so despite the judges' administrative and judicial problems. Somewhere, there is a former defendant whose right to freedom may have been abused by one of these judges now revealed to be a criminal himself. After talking with the finest judges money cannot buy and the lawyers who appear before them, we believe there is an answer.

Sir Francis Bacon authored much of the philosophy of temperate justice when he dominated the English Renaissance as the most gifted and eloquent of that nation's judges. He was revered as infallible while serving as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England. His ethical utterings are preserved in legal textbooks, and his words are chiseled on the cornerstones of palaces of justice throughout the world.

Unfortunately, the chiseling did not stop there. Three years after he attained the highest judicial position in England, Sir Francis Bacon — philosopher, scientist and jurist extraordinaire — was impeached. The House of Commons determined he had accepted at least twenty-eight bribes. His defense was novel. Bacon claimed he took bribes from both sides, and so never allowed dirty money to influence his decisions. Parliament wasn't impressed, and he was sentenced to the Tower of London.

King James, in a moment of melancholy, pardoned him, but Bacon never returned to Parliament and was not allowed "within the verge of the court." Five years later, he caught a cold while experimenting in refrigeration: he was stuffing a goose with snow. He died, but his humiliation and corruption live on.

"We got judges on the payroll that can straighten it out — one, two, three."

— Tommy Gamidorra,
Joseph Colombo family

Black-Robed Mafia

Those who claim there is no Mafia in this country are either disastrously ignorant or members in good standing. Organized crime cannot function without "organized justice."

In 1972, a trio of judges from New York and Massachusetts was implicated in a Senate crime investigation. All were accused of bribery. One was disbarred, one resigned and one is still sitting.

A federal investigation recently resulted in a score of indictments of New Jersey officials. Mayors, councilmen and judges were charged with bribery, conspiracy and tax evasion. One judge went to prison, and another returned to a city job, off the bench, where he has again been indicted.

In the Midwest, a trial judge was repeatedly lenient in sentencing members of a particular burglary ring and then was charged with being the ringleader himself. To lead their nefarious double lives, the black-robed Mafia abuses court personnel and compromises innocent colleagues. And how many more members are still to be discovered?

"I have no excuse.  I was just greedy."

— Seymour R. Thaler,
New York Supreme Court Justice-Elect,
Convicted March 23, 1972

The High Cost of Justice

The insatiable greed of members of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma brought about one of the most colossal scandals in contemporary American history. The story was suppressed in many communities by those officials who felt that emphasis placed on the barefaced bribery of the justices of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma could undermine the state's entire judicial system. They were right. Oklahoma jurisprudence has not been the same since.

In 1972, one of New York's most honored political leaders was about to climax a distinguished career of public service by ascending to the supreme court of that state. Between the time of his election and the swearing-in ceremonies, he was indicted and later convicted of extensive and expensive felonies.

The United States has come a long way in eliminating the double standard of justice that for too many generations prevented blacks, browns and the poor from a fair shake in court. The irony is that, while we have appointed more public defenders and sponsored more programs for the poor, we have been derelict in safeguarding communities from those who profit from justice for sale.  The real double standard today is between those who appear in court legitimately and those who have bought their verdict before the trial.  From 1912 to 1973, the pattern of corruption never varied.  It only intensified.

"We used to fix traffic tickets ... now we fix anything."

— A New York State lawyer


One of the wisest men of corruption once said, "If you are going to steal ... steal big." By some distorted sense of propriety, these select judges seemed to gravitate toward petty corruption. Whether their motivation was the misbelief that such instances would go undetected, or, if detected, unpunished, is not provable. But the triviality of their extrajudicial activities does not detract from the corrosive effect on their respective communities and the entire judicial system.

First, consider the Missouri judge, whose family represented the leadership politically and legally in its Clay County community. Despite an indictment following an investigation of his court records, the magistrate sought office again only to be miserably defeated. He was subsequently indicted for income tax evasion and sentenced to eight years in prison. And, as a reminder that abuse of judicial office is not new, witness the distinguished federal judge from Florida, who after being impeached by the United States Senate, had to be forceably evicted from his office by U.S. marshals. He had forgotten to stop practicing law while judging cases affecting his clients.

Notwithstanding the higher rank of those other accused judges in Oklahoma, a county judge was impeached by that state's legislature a few years ago for his prolific waiver of rules concerning marriage licenses, blood tests and waiting periods. The Oklahoma Bar Association also frowned on the money he received from those waivers.

A more serious incident involved a trial judge from Virginia, convicted recently of forgery and larceny. From New Jersey, the bastion of juridical intrigue, comes the judge whose "oversight" in filing tax returns for five years resulted in his conviction by a federal court.

A more imaginative though less tactful judge in Georgia organized a protection racket for those appearing before him. And, determined not to be outclassed by the neighboring state of New Jersey, New York has for several decades devoted itself to the production, elevation, and ultimate conviction of a large array of jurists from throughout the state. When Judge Rudich was removed from the bench, he claimed he was vindicated because the charge had been delinquency and not corruption. His lawyer announced a "clear-cut victory."

The involvement of judges with bail bonds is nothing new. A successful bondsman can always be counted on to guide large campaign contributions, legal and otherwise, each time a judge offers himself to the public. The common fraternization of bondsmen and judges has been a sore point with bar associations in most states for several years. Recently in Illinois, a particularly blatant case was discovered. Judge Louis Kizas climaxed the issue by pleading guilty to fifteen counts of official misconduct so that the bribery and conspiracy charges against him would be dismissed.

Payoffs from litigants, petty bribes, unauthorized loans from estates and, in one case, shoplifting, make up the list of comparatively trivial offenses that destroyed several judges who offered bargain prices for their friendship, counsel and favors.

"I'm going to screw you every way I can, short of reversible error."

— Judge Floyd Sarisohn

The Sensuous Judge

The ethical code that guides the lives of judges is rather strict. At least there is no provision or authorization for the "handling" of female employees or for any involvement with women appearing before the court in complicated divorce suits.

Needless to say, the charges against the distinguished criminal judge in Louisiana who presided over the Kennedy conspiracy trial were even more serious. The most liberal community will not condone pimping, procuring pornographic films or staging stag parties as an act of judicial service. Perhaps the most common category of "the sensuous judge" is that which includes the "patters" and "grabbers." Recently, one imaginative jurist has taken to lifting the skirts of his employees and autographing their underwear.

The morals of the nation may have changed, but these robed gentlemen represent an illustrative conglomeration who, in their own way, demonstrate the need for change in judicial selection and supervision.

"He would wrap his judicial robe about him and steal away from
the nightmare into which his dream degenerated."

— Ohio Supreme Court,
Discussing Judge David Copland

Court Jesters

None of the abuses of judicial discretion and decorum set forth in this book can be taken lightly, but this chapter's conglomeration of court clowns is a little unique. For although their abuses are as offensive as the more tragic situations, these resemble carnivals more than crises. The cane-wielding federal judge who seeks a companion on the bench from the audience is a classic example. These demonstrations of incompetence and deceit do reveal a somewhat poignant humor.

"I exercised my judicial discretion in each instance, and my
exercise of such discretion cannot be questioned."

— Judge Frank R. Franko

The Corrupters

In communities where judges are appointed, few people are naive enough to think that loyalty does not occasionally give way to favoritism when the political bosses come before the courts. Even at the highest level of government, when the president of the United States appoints a justice of the Supreme Court, it is no secret that when a situation arises, judicial views align themselves with the man who anointed the judge with perennial majesty.

When judges are elected, another kind of politics comes to play — concern for reelection. It is difficult for a jurist to be totally objective when he knows the community will be going to the polls to determine whether or not he should remain a judge.

Neither method of selection is elaborate enough to prevent corruption and collusion from slipping through too often. These cases are selected examples.

The distinguished Judge C. Woodrow Laughlin of Texas was indicted by a grand jury, so he rushed home to discharge the grand jury that had indicted him. The judge was removed from the bench, but the political dynasty he represented continued.

New York State's Liquor Authority has had more holes punched in it during the recent decade than most of the Swiss cheese imported by that state. A classic case involved Supreme Court Judge Melvin H. Osterman, who started his career by being declared "not qualified" by the state bar association when the governor recommended him for judgeship. He finished his career convicted of bribery and sentenced to three years in prison. But there is still hope, for he was released early on good behavior.

The political activities of judges in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ohio serve as other classic examples of judicial abuse and public corruption. It was as if they were dedicated to a resurrection of the high standards of decency established by the judge to whom our book is dedicated — Sir Francis Bacon, the Lord High Chancellor of England, who, when convicted of bribery, claimed he always took from both sides to insure his impartiality.

"If a man hasn't got guts and personal integrity, I don't want him on my bench."

— Vince Lombardi

Current Bench Warmers

There are over 7,000 American judges serving today on federal and state trial and appellate courts. Although the systems and rules vary in each state, and all states differ from the federal judiciary, there is one common denominator for all — an overabundance of incompetent, corrupt, or easily-influenced judges.

The argument that there are just as many crooked television repairmen or auto mechanics and the like doesn't hold up. No repairman or mechanic or anyone but a judge has unlimited control over the freedom and property of every member of his community.

The judges in this chapter are only a small representative grouping. There are several hundred judges judging us who have been accused and often found guilty of the wrongs they assess in others. Nevertheless, many of these judges might still be effective. By now adhering strictly to their ethical and legal responsibilities, perhaps they are not as dangerous to our sagging democracy as the many yet undiscovered judges who owe allegiance to a few and are willing to sell their favors.

It has been extraordinarily difficult to remove judges from the bench for their unwillingness or inability to perform their duties properly. This is true, not only for federal judges with life tenure, but also for judges with set terms of office.

Although a few will fail to win reappointment or reelection, only the most blatant and bizarre cases have resulted in the tortuous processes of impeachment and conviction.

The states have given increased attention to the judicial discipline problem and tried to establish methods for coping with it. But whatever machinery exists, it is seldom employed. Judges and lawyers are loath to take on other sitting judges. And so we have many bench-warmers who are interesting, to say the least.

"Otto Kerner had an outstanding reputation. ...
It is ironic that corruption should reach such a man."

— James Thompson,
United States Attorney

The Chicago Three

In ancient societies, each tribe customarily designated its wisest member to sit in judgment over the rest of the tribe. He was called many things, but his function never changed. He judged the wrongdoers and settled disputes in the village.

After thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, the primitive practice had been updated and refined so that now we have a sophisticated chain of command among those who judge us.

Some cynics claim — and unfortunately there appears to be periodic justification — that judgeships are reserved for those who cannot make a living any other way, and that judges progress up the appellate organization in indirect proportion to their ability and integrity.

Everybody agrees that the quality of trial-level judges in many communities is terrible, but few of us have seen the repeated instances of corruption and inefficiency that seem to plague courthouses of the state of Illinois. Years ago, it was said that political judgeships attracted the bottom half of the bar. Although that may not be true generally, it should be noted that many judges are bunglers, some are crooks and several are a little of both.

Recently, two members of the Illinois Supreme Court resigned under very accusatory fire. Their $40,000 annual salary apparently had not been enough, according to those who focused on the financial machinations of the distinguished jurists.

In 1972, the American judicial system was rocked with a political earthquake. The conviction of Otto Kerner, former governor of Illinois and one of the most highly respected judges in America, was precedential in an unfortunate way. He became the first sitting federal judge ever criminally convicted when he was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $50,000 in a racetrack-stock bribery scheme. At the close of the trial, Kerner told the court that the jury's verdict had "deeply and irreparably tainted the good reputation that I cherished, and years of imprisonment can never compare to the severity of that punishment." Insofar as his remarks apply to the damaged faith in our judiciary, Kerner deserves a Pulitzer Prize for understatement.

Exerpted from: Charles R. Ashmen, The Finest Judges Money Can Buy, Nash Publishing, Los Angeles, 1973.

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