“Municipal Takeovers”: Failing to Address Corruption While Threatening Democratic Self-Government 

The town of Mason is a small, majority-Black community in the State of Tennessee. For two decades, Mason’s municipal government has been afflicted with serious corruption and financial mismanagement, leading to the resignation a few years ago of almost all of Mason’s elected leadership following allegations of fraud and embezzlement. In the wake of these persistent problems, this past February the Tennessee State Comptroller, Jason Mumpower, sent a dramatic request to every property owner in Mason: vote to dissolve your town (in which case Mason would be absorbed into majority-White Tipton County, thus ending Mason’s 153 years of independent governance), or else the state government will exercise its legal authority to step in and take financial control of Mason’s town government—which would likely lead to drastic layoffs and cuts to municipal benefits. (Mumpower’s ultimatum may well have been influenced not only by Mason’s history of municipal corruption, but also by the fact that Ford Motors is set to open up a massive manufacturing plant nearby, which will bring in significant tax revenue that Mumpower claimed Mason’s town government can’t handle responsibly.)

The situation in Mason may seem extraordinary, but it is far from unique. Roughly twenty U.S. states have laws that permit the state government to take over municipal governments, although the specifics of the laws differ. (Municipal takeovers are often preceded, as in Mason, by presenting the municipality with the option to dissolve and be absorbed into the surrounding county.) Though municipal takeovers come in various forms, they generally entail the appointment of an “intervenor,” such as a state official, emergency manager, or financial control board. In some states, the intervenor’s powers are limited to financial oversight and technical assistance, but in other states (including Tennessee), the intervenor can take steps as radical as entirely dissolving a locality.

Municipal takeovers are, unsurprisingly, controversial. While pursuing a takeover is an extreme step, one can understand why some people might find it warranted, especially when corruption is so deeply embedded in a municipality that it seems inconceivable that the local government can clean itself up. But this view is misguided, at least in the U.S. context. (Municipal dissolution has been deployed and endorsed by some anticorruption advocates in other countries, such as Italy. While some of my arguments may apply in other contexts, this post focuses on the United States.) First, the costs of municipal takeovers are substantial and are often underestimated. Second, the purported benefits of municipal takeovers—at least with respect to addressing the underlying corruption and misgovernance problems in a given community—rarely materialize.

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Reforming the Indian Judiciary from the Bottom Up

“Corruption is as old as society. Corruption has become a way of life, [an] acceptable way of life. And judges don’t drop from heaven.” 

This was former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s reply when a journalist asked him about corruption in India’s courts. Such a statement may seem extraordinary coming from a former Chief Justice, but he is not alone in holding this belief. Two other former Chief Justices have acknowledged the pervasive corruption problem facing India’s judiciary, particularly in the lower courts where most Indians interact with the judicial system. And this perception is backed up by quantitative evidence: according to Transparency International, 32% of Indians who used the courts in 2020 had paid a bribe that year, while 38% resorted to personal connections to navigate the system. 

Much of the public outrage over India’s judicial corruption has understandably been directed toward individual corrupt judges (see herehere, and here), but the problem reflects deeper systemic issues—perhaps most importantly, the massive case backlog. There are currently forty million pending court cases in the country’s District Courts and Subordinate Courts, and every year that number grows by millions more. By some estimates, it would take 400 years for the judiciary to clear the backlog at its current rate (and that’s assuming no new cases are filed in the meantime). It takes an average of 35 months to resolve a legal issue in India, the longest in the world according to one report. And many cases take much longer: over half a million cases have been pending for over twenty years.

This case backlog, and the glacial pace of Indian justice, is not only a crisis for the administration of justice but also a breeding ground for corruption. Given the extraordinary delays, those litigants who can afford to do so have strong incentives to pay bribes or use connections to get a faster verdict. (Most bribes are paid to court officials or middlemen, including lawyers, rather than directly to judges.) And, without excusing those judges who violate their oaths of office, it’s not that surprising that overworked, underpaid judges dealing with crushing caseloads would be tempted to accept these under-the-table payments. In essence, then, the extreme case backlog in the lower courts has created something of a two-track system, one for those that can pay the price to skip the line, and one for everyone else.

As the number of pending cases continues to balloon, this problem is only going to get worse. While punishing those judges (and their staff) who are caught requesting or receiving bribes—and those litigants and facilitators who offer those bribes—may be morally and legally justified, cracking down on individual wrongdoers is not enough to address the structural roots of India’s judicial corruption problem. 

What can be done? Though there are no easy solutions, India needs to adopt reforms to increase both the quantity and the quality of its lower court judges:

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Tackling Corruption While Preserving Judicial Independence: Lessons from India’s Supreme Court 

In India, Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of India’s 25 regional High Courts are appointed through a process known as the Collegium System. Although the Constitution vests the appointment power in the President of India, the President may only appoint a Supreme Court or High Court nominee recommended by a body called the Collegium, which consists of the Chief Justice, the four other senior-most Supreme Court Justices, and, in the case of High Court nominees, the senior-most judge on the High Court of the prospective appointee.

This system, which developed over the 1980s and 1990s as part of a decades-long tug-of-war between the branches of government, is controversial. Some critics have argued that the Collegium, which operates largely as a black box, leads to the selection of judges based on cronyism and quid pro quos, regardless of a nominee’s merit or scruples. Notably, critics contend, the Collegium System allows for the appointment of corrupt judges because the secrecy of the Collegium’s deliberations prevents accusations of impropriety against those nominees from becoming public. In buttressing this claim, critics point to instances of High Court judges who have been credibly accused of corruption, including one who was formally charged at the end of last year for taking a bribe in exchange for a favorable verdict. Critics also contend that the Collegium System exacerbates judicial corruption through another, more indirect channel: The Collegium’s slow pace has left hundreds of High Court seats vacant, which exacerbates the Indian court system’s extreme case backlog. That backlog, in turn, encourages petty bribery, as many frustrated litigants would prefer to bribe a judge or court official to jump the line or get a case dismissed rather than wait years for a final resolution. Even former Chief Justice V.N. Khare acknowledged that bribes for bail are rampant in the lower courts given the delays litigants may face down the line.

In response to these concerns, the Indian Parliament, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to amend the Indian Constitution to replace the Collegium with a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) composed of representatives from all three branches. But before the law could go into effect, the Supreme Court ruled it an unconstitutional threat to judicial independence. While calls for reform temporarily abated, just last December a member of Modi’s cabinet expressed support for reintroducing the NJAC amendment to replace the Collegium System.

Any such attempt, however, would be misguided. Anti-Collegium reforms like the NJAC would undermine India’s hard-won judicial independence, and the corruption problem these reforms would purport to solve has been greatly exaggerated.

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“Elect a Government That Works”: A Case Study in Populism and Corruption from India 

As the United States was reeling from President Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal, another imperiled leader—Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—was fighting for her political life thousands of miles away. Although Gandhi and Nixon never got along, their stories overlap. Both barely squeaked into power after close elections in the late 1960s, but then won resounding reelection victories in the early 1970s. Gandhi’s political fortunes, like Nixon’s, took a turn for the worse shortly after reelection, in light of substantiated accusations of illegal campaign activity. But at this point, Nixon and Gandhi’s stories diverge. Unlike Nixon, Gandhi stayed the course and refused to resign. And in the end she prevailed: Gandhi was popularly elected three times with some of the largest governing majorities in Indian history.

How did Gandhi convince the public to reelect her, despite her known, widespread abuses of authority? How did a leader ensnared in scandal and corruption hold onto power to become one of the most beloved leaders in the world’s largest democracy? The answer to these questions may lie in Gandhi’s concentrated emphasis on left-wing populism. She argued to voters that she alone was most capable of effectuating change for India and its most needy citizens by enacting social programs and redistributing wealth. Additionally, Gandhi spent much of her time as Prime Minister consolidating her power within the party and the central government. This enabled much of the corruption that marked her rule but was also what allowed her to argue to the public that she was uniquely capable of fixing the nation’s problems.

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From the Permit Raj to the Billionaire Raj: Corruption, Liberalization, and Income Inequality in India

For over a year, tens of thousands of Indian farmers camped on the highways of New Delhi in protest of three new agricultural laws heralded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Those laws proposed a national framework for liberalizing the country’s heavily-regulated agricultural markets, allowing farmers to sell their crop yields on the private market rather than selling at fixed prices in government-regulated wholesale markets. While Modi and other proponents of the laws argued that these regulated markets failed to improve farmers’ livelihoods and were rife with corruptionopponents feared that the laws would create an unregulated free market dominated by large, exploitative corporations. On September 5, the protests against the laws culminated in a mass rally of over half a million farmers. Two months later, Modi announced that he would be repealing the laws, a stunning public reversal that few had expected from the ordinarily unyielding Prime Minister. 

To put these most recent developments in a broader context, the dispute over the farm laws showcases a debate over liberalization and deregulation in India that has been raging for more than half a century. It is a story not only of competing visions for the country’s economy, but also of the deep interrelation between corruption and income inequality. As the agriculture fight demonstrates, liberalization has been offered as a mechanism to solve both problems. But a closer look at India’s experience with liberalization complicates this theory. Liberalization may have helped fuel the country’s precipitous economic rise, but it only further exacerbated income inequality while further entrenching the systems of corruption that favor the country’s wealthy elite. At best, unchecked liberalization in India has simply repackaged corruption in new forms; at worst, it has allowed corruption to flourish.

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