Judges and Bribes

[From the archives.]


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.


[This archived post goes along with a new post I published yesterday on the failure of judges in Nazi Germany.]

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2 Responses to Judges and Bribes

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    Ethics. Much can be said about, your demonstration does more than talking. bravo.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Bob. One thing I also get to do is teach judicial ethics to judges here in California, and provide advice to judges with ethics questions. It’s a topic my colleagues are very careful with.

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