Even “Tough on Corruption” Proponents Should Worry about “Zero Tolerance” Rules

“Zero tolerance for corruption,” as Professor Stephenson suggested in a 2014 post, is an expression that can be construed in several different ways: from a general attitude that corruption should be considered “a high priority,” to an uncompromising policy mandating that “all feasible measures to minimize corruption must always be used.” In this post I will discuss another common, narrower understanding of “zero tolerance for corruption,” according to which corruption – at least in certain contexts – must always be addressed with a mandatory predetermined harsh sanction. A clear example of such a “zero tolerance” rule is the Colombian and Peruvian law demanding the instant termination of “any public contract tainted by corruption.” Another illustrative example is the EU’s directive mandating debarment from public contracting of any company convicted of offenses of corruption, fraud, or money laundering.

Granted, the potential deterrent value of mandatory harsh sanctions for corruption is substantial. A company aware that any conviction for corruption will inevitably incur severe penalties is more likely to be dissuaded from violating the law. Nevertheless, the costs of this “take no prisoners” approach to anticorruption may be much higher than the actual benefit. Thus, as Rick Messick recently showed, the law mandating termination of corruption-tainted public contracts has proven to have disastrous ramifications for the infrastructure in Peru and Colombia. As it turns out, not only has the nondiscretionary cancellation of corruption-tainted public contracts halted the advancement of existing infrastructure projects, but it has also deterred investors and developers from taking any part in such projects, for fear that they will be cancelled due to “the tiniest of infractions by anyone associated with the project.” Similarly, debarment is nothing less than “a death-sentence” for companies whose main business involves public contracts, and its mandatory imposition for even a relatively minor offense may be so draconian as to be counterproductive.

This kind of cost-benefit reasoning, though compelling to some, would not convince many proponents of an unequivocally “tough on corruption” stance. Many anticorruption hardliners believe in maximizing deterrence notwithstanding any associated costs. From this point of view, the end of deterring corruption justifies all necessary means. Yet even for those who take this view, it turns out that “zero tolerance” may not be the ideal approach. Supporters of “zero tolerance” rules assume that adoption of mandatory sanctions for corruption would guarantee that actors in the anticorruption system – judges, prosecutors, and legislators – will adhere to the “zero tolerance” ideal, and that such rules would be sustainable. But these decisionmakers in the anticorruption system may evade the application of “zero tolerance” rules where doing so would lead to sanctions perceived (rightly or wrongly) as patently absurd or unjust. In other words, a “zero tolerance” rule on the books does not guarantee that a “zero tolerance” policy would actually be implemented. Consider the various ways that actors in the anticorruption system may avoid triggering the mandatory sanctions for corruption:

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Guest Post: Curbing Judicial Corruption To Make “Justice For All” a Reality

Elodie Beth, Asia-Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Advisor for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), submits the following guest post:

Judicial corruption is a serious problem, one that threatens further progress on a range of other good governance and institution-building initiatives. According to Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, citizens around the world perceive the judiciary as the second-most corruption-prone sector (after the police). That depressing figure is a worldwide average; in some countries, the situation is even worse. For example, a recent study by the International Bar Association in Cambodia (discussed at greater length here) reported that Cambodian lawyers estimated that bribes are paid to judges or clerks in 90% of cases. Some renowned judges and legal experts have taken the matter in their own hands at the international level by creating the Judicial Integrity Group and developing the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct. However, the implementation of the Principles remains a major challenge in many countries.

One way to help fight corruption in the judiciary would be to incorporate anticorruption more explicitly and comprehensively into judicial capacity assessments. Many development partners have already created tools and methods to assess the judiciary, but with a few exceptions, these evaluation tools rarely focus on corruption. Moreover, these judicial assessments tend to be externally driven, meaning that their recommendations often do not generate a sense of ownership on the part of the judiciary being evaluated, and there is therefore often too little follow-up.

So what more can we do? Fortunately, there are some lessons we can draw from UNDP’s capacity development work for other institutions and sectors, such as National Human Rights Institutions and anticorruption agencies, while keeping in mind some of the specific characteristics of the judiciary. UNDP’s recent report A Transparent and Accountable Judiciary To Deliver Justice for All, produced jointly with the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, illustrates how experiences from around the world can help promote judicial integrity. The report also suggests some general principles that could guide capacity assessments of the justice sector and follow-up implementation strategies: Continue reading

Williams-Yulee and Why It’s Time for America to Stop Electing Judges

For casual news fans and avid U.S. Supreme Court junkies alike, the past week’s headlines have been dominated, not surprisingly, by stories about Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case.  But there’s another story that emerged from the Court this week that deserves special attention in this forum:  Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar Association. In that case — issued the day after oral argument in Obergefell — the Court once again waded into America’s longstanding but peculiar experiment with judicial elections.

For more than 150 years, the United States has stood apart from most of the world in its practice of electing judges; today, 39 U.S. states elect at least some judges and 87% of state court judges will stand for an election at some point in their careers. Why this fascination with judicial elections? Well, it can be chalked up to the populist origins of the practice — as a measure for combating corrupt patronage networks in the mid-1800s — and the belief that elections render judges more democratically accountable.

But as states like Florida have learned, judicial elections never lived up to their populist promise. In fact, there was a time, not so long ago, when corruption ruled Florida’s judiciary. The stories abound: There was the judge in the late 1960s who required lawyers to contribute to his campaign before they could argue. Even more embarrassing were the three members of the Florida Supreme Court who resigned in the early 1970s after getting caught pressuring lower courts to rule in favor of the justices’ campaign donors, allowing an interested party to ghostwrite an opinion, and enjoying a gambling spree in Las Vegas courtesy of a dog track that was litigating a case before the court. The reason for this gap between theory and practice: the need to raise campaign funds undercuts judicial integrity and invites quid pro quo corruption.

Now, Williams-Yulee turned out to be a victory for anticorruption: the Court held that Florida could bar judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. Unfortunately, though, the victory is small and fleeting: the Court’s reasoning focused on the extremely narrow nature of the Florida rule and impliedly rejected most campaign finance restrictions in judicial elections (beyond contribution limits). So even after Williams-Yulee, states still have little in their arsenal with which to combat the evils of judicial elections. Maybe then, in an era when more and more money is flowing into judicial campaigns, Williams-Yulee ought to be our wake-up call — a sign that its time for the United States to kick the “insanely and characteristically American” habit of electing judges.

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