Judges Taking Bribes

I went into a convenience store near work today. I stop in for a soda once in a while, and usually share a greeting with the woman who owns the place. Today her husband was there too and I heard one of them say, “That’s the judge.”

Then her husband said something I’ve never heard there before. “That’s OK, you don’t have to pay for that.” He was smiling and gesturing for me to pick up the soda from the counter.

This couple is from another country, raised in a culture where it’s probably normal for shopkeepers to give small amounts of their wares to government officials. Perhaps it’s considered good manners to those in authority, or perhaps a way to ensure being in their good graces.

I refused the kind offer. I knew he didn’t mean anything bad by it, but I had to explain that if I didn’t pay for the soda I would not be able to leave the store with it. He laughed as I handed over the cash.

There are rules about this type of thing, of course. For one thing, the Code of Judicial Ethics which governs judges in my state is clear that accepting this type of gift – given solely because I happen to be a judge – would be an abuse of my office.

But another rule, from a higher authority at that, comes into play as well.

A Job Specifically Governed by Scripture

Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:18-20.)

It’s not that the man was trying to bribe me, of course. He just wanted to show a kindness. But appearances of impropriety are as bad as impropriety itself when it comes to the judiciary.  Here is how seriously God takes the judicial system:

Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.

Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.

Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8.)

And here:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15.)

As I said, no one would think that man was trying to bribe me. But someone who observed the gift might think the man was in a special relationship with me, one that would inure to his benefit sometime perhaps. It doesn’t matter that no one else was there to see it. God was there.

It’s odd to have a job specifically governed by Scripture.

***

Has a passage from the Bible ever specifically applied to something you were doing? How did it guide you?

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12 Responses to Judges Taking Bribes

  1. nmcdonal says:

    Tim, I love hearing about the unique life you have as a Christian and a keeper of governmental law – and while I know flaunting your own character isn’t exactly what you had in mind, you should know that I’ve appreciated every time I’ve seen your integrity on a personal and public scale. Glad to have guys like you in court!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Nick. I once gave a talk on the word “integrity” to a bunch of college students. The words “Integrity” and “integer” are related, and I suggested that since one simple definition of “integer” is that it is a whole number, then a person with integrity is a whole person. I guess you could also say that a person without integrity has holes in them. Sometimes I think I still have some holes, but I then remember that the Holy Spirit fills me up and makes me whole always.

      Someone should write a piece on wholeness, hole-iness, and holiness.

      • Mary Anne says:

        “Wholeness, hole-iness, and holiness.” It says something about me, doesn’t it, that my first thought was of the joke I share with my dad about special underwear just for Sundays, because it’s “hole-y.” 😉

        Also, my first thought on bribes is a quotation from Richard Adams’ novel Maia, in which a very worldly-wise young woman tells her less experienced friend: “Always bribe too much . . . the jails are full of people who bribed too little.” But these girls are slaves in a vulnerable position, with no power at all in their society. A judge, on the other hand . . . it’s no wonder the Bible spends so much time pressing the point about judges dealing fairly.

        And I always smile a bit over the unjust judge in the parable who fears “neither God nor
        man,” but gives the widow her day in court just to get some peace! *g* Good for her,
        whoever she was!

  2. Jeannie says:

    That’s really interesting, and I like the integrity/integer example too.

    My husband is a hospital nurse and occasionally has had to deal with the issue of accepting gifts. He once received an envelope in the mail containing theatre tickets, sent to him by a former patient who’d appreciated his care. His supervisor said it was OK for him to accept the gift because it was more of a thank you after the fact. But if a nurse is caring for a patient long-term, gifts could seem like an attempt to buy better future care; and over the long term a patient probably has several nurses, so singling out one could be more problematic. Someone sent him money once, too — around $50. Again he talked to his supervisor, then donated the $ to a charity and wrote to the former patient explaining what he’d done (to thank the person but also to explain that he could not accept the $ personally). These cases are obviously more “gray” than your situation, but one important element is keeping things out in the open, e.g. telling a superior so that there can be no accusation of secrecy. So much of life and work is boundaries, isn’t it.

    • Tim says:

      Your husband sounds like he handled things quite well, Jeannie. I bet he’s glad to have a supervisor who is so understanding, supportive and wise too.

  3. That’s interesting how much the Bible applied to you in this case, but also interesting that you’re not allowed to accept gifts of this nature. Never would have known it! Like I said, you’re the only judge I’ve ever known!

    • Tim says:

      You’d be surprised at the restrictions placed on judges in California, Rachel. As far as I can tell, we have a more extensive code of ethics than any other elected official. And that code is enacted into law by way of Supreme Court regulations governing the judicial branch, so it really is illegal for me to violate its provisions. Still, they make good sense when you understand them.

  4. I think a lot of scriptures I have read applied to what I was doing at a certain time. It is always cool when that happens!!!!!
    That is sad that they wanted to sort of buy you an opinion of them or something.

    • Tim says:

      I think they were just trying to be kind, but still I couldn’t take them up on their hospitality. When this type of things happens, my wife reminds me to be kind because the people offering don’t understand that their offer is not allowed. She’s right, of course!

  5. Shy1 says:

    This is interesting. Most of us are never in the position to have to think about something like this, as most likely the couple had never thought about it this way. But if you had taken it, even if neither you nor they meant anything by it, and someday they stood in your courtroom, it could have an affect on your opinion. A very good rule, meant to keep everyone from harm. Thanks, Tim, I always learn something on your blog.

    • Tim says:

      I think for most judges it would actually have no effect on their judgment in court. It’s the perception someone may have – a perception similar to how you saw it, for example – that we are ethically required to avoid cfreating.

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