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 only 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. Even as recently as the early 2000s, state judges have come under fire for not only individual corruption, but pervasive, systemic corruption rings. Outright bribery is only one problem: state judges have also been known to engage in misappropriation of public resources, nepotism in appointing counsel, and “skimming off the top.”
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 Stephenson observed, even during the quite corrupt nineteenth century, “at least at the federal level, the institutions of justice—courts and prosecutors—seemed relatively clean and basically functional.” If anything, the federal judiciary, and federal prosecutors, have served as a check on corruption at the state and local level, “particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century.” This pattern continues into the present day: Although the federal judiciary comprises 5% of all judges in the United States, they only account for 0.2% of known cases of judicial bribery.
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? There are two broad categories of explanation: historical and structural. These are not mutually exclusive alternatives; rather, the historical and structural explanations complement one another.