Smelly Justice

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In this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Shoftim in Deuteronomy, Israel is commanded to have judges and officers, those who maintain both justice and order. A judge in particular is required to be entirely unbiased, and not to accept ‘Shochad’, usually translated as bribery.

The Torah warns us that “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous.” [Deut. 16:19] G-d is not talking about a corrupt person here, He is talking about the “wise” and the “righteous”!

The Talmud tells us that the ‘bribery’ discussed also goes well beyond passing money to the judge and back-room deals. In one case discussed in the Talmud, two litigants are sent to a noted sage for arbitration. One of them recognizes the judge and asks, “didn’t you stay in my hotel?”

The Rabbi answered, “yes I did, and now I can’t judge your case!”

Having previously conducted a commercial transaction, with no ulterior motive or quid pro quo, isn’t something we would understand as ‘bribery’ at all. But the scholarly Rabbi correctly understood that even this was enough to create a small connection, and perhaps was enough to intimidate the other party.

Like most other Orthodox Jews, I am troubled by the judge’s actions in the trial of Shalom Rubashkin. There are all sorts of things that can be said to justify her behavior, or chalk it up to a judge with a long history of apparent favoritism towards the prosecution. But having been so intensely involved with the planning of the immigration raid upon the Postville plant — which, in the end, had no direct relationship to the misreporting of which Rubashkin was guilty — certainly gives the appearance of a previous connection to the prosecution and bias against the defendant. The fact that she failed to disclose this, and it only came to light after suing the government to provide information about the raid, is entirely inexcusable and unseemly. Our Sages knew well that no matter what decision might be arrived at in a truly unbiased fashion, justice must not merely be done cleanly — it has to look and smell clean as well.

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12 Responses

  1. Miriam says:

    Maybe it is a bit like crying wolf – we have made so many public appeals on behalf of so many on trial, and not all of them had merit. The most embarrassing was the high-profile case right before, of the Floridian who brutally murdered and then hid the body of a policewoman who wouldn’t be arrested. The international email campaign was deafening – and many were later shocked that they participated in a campaign for someone who was not very innocent. I’m sure that lead-in didn’t help the public PR campaign for Mr. Rubashkin.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Julie wrote above “…I feel that many people in the frum community are not fully aware of the actual facts of the case. Either that, or they choose to ignore/rationalize them away, and I find that very disappointing.”

    Besides that, some of our Orthodox media may have set out from the beginning to be part of the defense team and to base “news” items on talking points from the defense lawyers. This goes beyond our obligation to protect fellow Jews from unfair prosecution.

  3. Julie says:

    A close family member of mine does auditing for the federal government (and has dealt with many similar cases, btw) and after reading the court documents online said that the problem is he was found guilty of creating false invoices. That 1920’s law was just really just a sidenote and if that had been the only problem he wouldn’t have received such a harsh sentence. If he’d pleaded guilty he’d likely have gotten a much, much lighter sentence. The excuse of “everybody does it” and “the bank knew he was doing it” is just rationalization. I feel bad that he received such a harsh sentence, and I hope the appeal is able to reduce it, but I feel that many people in the frum community are not fully aware of the actual facts of the case. Either that, or they choose to ignore/rationalize them away, and I find that very disappointing. At least, use this as a teachable moment.

  4. rtw says:

    Rubashkin was found guilty on 86 counts. Which one was the law from the 1920s and how many years did Reade give him for that one?

    That which is asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence, but I’ll bite: what evidence is there that anti-semitism specifically motivated the verdict in this case?

  5. YM says:

    Ken, my understanding is that R. Rubashkin was convicted of violating a law from the 1920s that requires slaugherhouses to pay for cattle within 24 hours, a law that had not been enforced for 50 years. He was sentenced to 27 years in jail, more than Jeffrey Skilling, more than the guy who was the head of MCI. Most of the charges he was originally charged with were dropped. Yes, I think he was the victim of injustice, and perhaps anti-semitism.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    “they explain this as a technical detail as the judge had to be available to book hundreds of people within 24 hours…”

    That logistical/scheduling matter could have been arranged without any discussion of the company under investigation or the specific charges, and without any in-person participation in raid planning meetings.

  7. Tziki says:

    they explain this as a technical detail as the judge had to be available to book hundreds of people within 24 hours…

  8. Bob Miller says:

    As Jews, we ought to be smart enough to do both these things:

    1. Protect Jewish defendants from abuse by the American legal system.

    2. Not turn all such defendants into martyrs and role models through PR campaigns engulfing our Jewish media. I have come to view many news articles in these media as paid or unpaid advertisements, and many reporters as creative writers working from press releases.

  9. Ken Bloom says:

    You’re taking Rubashkin’s defense team’s press release as absolute truth when you say that the judge was biased with improper involvement in the case. Is it possible that we as American Jews have been bribed by our dependance on Rubashkin’s meat, and are unable to see the hypocrisy that we support when we go to such lengths to support someone who defrauded a bank?

  10. dr. bill says:

    Without commenting on the case discussed, the Torah’s strictures more aptly apply to members of the jury than to the judge; it is the jury who judges. A judge in a suit against Toyota would not be barred if he drove up in a Lexus; a juror likely would.

    In US courts, judges routinely see (highly) prejudicial material that is then barred from use in the trial. A judge can well be prejudiced, but that would be evaluated after the fact by judging the decisions they make operating the trial.

  11. rtw says:

    Whenever higher-ups, rabbis or judges, judge people…they must be willing to have the appearance of listening to both sides and issuing a nonpartisan judgment based in facts as opposed to ideology. Certainly, a greatly timed Jewish message.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    This Elul would be a good time to look inward to see how we can improve our Beis Din system today (both standing and ad-hoc types). It should be the gold standard to meaure secular courts against.