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Tipping Justitia’s scale: when money influences justice

Judicial bribery – when judges or other court officials accept cash payments to alter the outcome of a trial to benefit the briber – is one of the most destructive forms of corruption. Not only is the act highly immoral, but it so effectively shatters the rule of law as to make it a caricature of its former self. Once the quasi-sacred act of passing judgement is for sale, business or public figures can get away with anything, to the detriment of society as a whole.

The corroding influence of such dirty judges and the individuals taking advantage of them is not always easy to quantify. Yet one way the criminal energy involved by parties engaging in judicial bribery can be glimpsed is by considering the sums of money and sheer audacity involved.

Sergei Makhlai and Russia’s highest court

A case that symbolizes contempt for the law like almost no other is that of the Russian chemical fertilizer giant Togliattiazot (ToAZ). In January of this year, majority owner Sergei Makhlai was charged with allegedly ordering one of his associates to pay $1.2 million in bribes to judges of the Russian Supreme Court. The supposed objective was enticing the court to dismiss a ruling authorizing the state to recover 1 billion rubles ($14.2 million) in tax arrears from ToAZ.

Back in 2012, the regional tax authority found that ToAZ had deliberately underreported its revenue for the year 2010 by 1 billion rubles, leading the authorities to charge the company with restitution payments, as well as another 161 million rubles in corporate tax. Unhappy to be served a significant tax bill, Makhlai took to regional commercial courts, only to see the right to reclaim the arrears upheld in all instances. Russia’s Supreme Court was therefore the last chance to have the case thrown out.

Per the indictment, Makhlai allegedly instructed Alexander Popov, CEO of Togliattikhimbank, a bank the ToAZ owner controlled, to place the $1.2 million bribe in a safe deposit box. Next, ToAZ’s head of security, Oleg Antoshin, was tasked with finding intermediaries that would then deliver the payment to Supreme Court judges. However, the Supreme Court ruled against Makhlai before the group could complete the transaction. The attempt was reportedly exposed by Antoshin, who was under investigation on separate charges. As a result, Popov was charged with bribery along with Makhlai, as this case unfolded to become one of the biggest corruption scandals in Russia.

China’s judicial corruption machine gets exposed

While the money didn’t reach the judges in this instance, the same cannot be said of the next case. In China, corruption in the justice system was so normalized that China watchers not only considered it a tradition, but a vital aspect of obtaining rulings in the first place. Even so, the broader Chinese public was never fully aware of its scale – until 2002, when an investigation into the dealings of the Wuhan Intermediate Court exposed “the ingrained culture of corruption within the judicial system”.

The investigation centred around the actions of what became known as “The alliance of corrupted judges” – 13 judges of the court, including its sitting vice presidents, who received 4 million yuan to make decisions in their bribers interest. Most shocking was the fall of Ke Changxin, who had been the Wuhan Intermediate Court’s executive vice president, while also serving as a representative of the National People's Congress.

Ke Changxin's crimes involved receiving bribes between 1999 and 2002 to make beneficial rulings in litigation procedures. For this, he allegedly received bribes on 17 occasions worth 270,000 yuan from local business owners. Following unprecedented public anger, , Ke Changxin was sentenced to 13 years in prison , along with 12 other judges who all received sentences between 13 and 6 years. In all, more than a hundred other judges and court officials were tried, which made this embarrassing display a prime trigger behind then-premier Wen Jiabao’s fight against corruption.

John A. Michalek and America’s judicial rot

If the first examples represent the unhealthy desire of business interests to interfere in trials, then former New York State Supreme Court judge John A. Michalek symbolizes the risks of political intervention – and simple greed.

What broke Michalek’s neck was his involvement with Steven Pigeon, a “political operative” for the democratic party with ties to New York governor Andrew Cuomo. In a classic quid pro quo, Pigeon provided Michalek with hockey tickets, jobs for his relatives and sought to influence Cumo to appoint Michalek a position at the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, whose members are directly selected by the governor. In return, Michalek “engaged in official conduct” to further Steven Pigeon’s interests, including lawsuits heard before the judge.

A disgraced Michalek pleaded guilty in 2016, with Pigeon following suit in 2018. However, despite the fact that the investigation has been ongoing since 2015, no sentences have been handed down, with both Pigeon and Michalek remaining free. Observers chalk this up to Pigeon’s ongoing cooperation with investigators as part of a plea deal, with Michalek’s sentencing ultimately depending on the disposition of the Pigeon case.

It speaks to the resilience of the executive authorities that all of these cases eventually came to light. The rigorous probes that followed are encouraging flickers of hope that the rotten union between corrupt private interests and greedy judges will ultimately be broken. And, as the case of China particularly shows, the role of an outraged public is a powerful motivator to change the system for the better.

To protect the rule of law and prevent despotism, it’s crucial that Justitia remains blind.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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