David W. Rivkin is a Past President of the International Bar Association (IBA) and a litigation partner in the International Dispute Resolution Group and Co-Chair of the Business Integrity/ESG Group at Debevoise & Plimpton’s New York and London offices. Daniel Aun is a senior litigation associate at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York and the founder and chair of the Brazil-U.S. 40 and Under White Collar Lawyers Initiative.
No industry, sector, or profession is immune to misconduct. And while the vast majority of judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and other legal professionals are law-abiding and honest, some are not. Unfortunately, those exceptions can often threaten the integrity and the perception of the judicial system as a whole and undermine the public’s trust in it.
Few things can be more destabilizing than corruption of and in the judicial system, including its damaging consequences to ordinary citizens and the insidiousness with which it can taint the highest levels of power. Judicial corruption undermines public confidence in the judicial system, in particular, and in public institutions, more broadly, and operates as a gateway or free-pass for other types of wrongdoing. That is precisely why judicial integrity is a common goal across all jurisdictions and has been among the priorities of the International Bar Association (IBA) in recent years. The silver lining is that simple steps rooted in seemingly obvious premises can help make a difference.
The responses to a survey into judicial corruption conducted by the IBA’s Judicial Integrity Initiative identified undue political influence and bribery as the most common categories of corrupt behavior tainting judicial systems, and criminal cases as those most often subject to such acts. The responses also suggested that judges, lawyers, court personnel and prosecutors, as part of the system itself, were reportedly most involved. In many jurisdictions, a substantial portion of respondents found lawyers to be the judicial professionals most likely to initiate corrupt conduct, including by acting as “intermediaries” among the various players.
The survey provides evidence that judicial corruption does not occur in a vacuum, and that it can potentially involve many different types of players given the interconnectedness of the legal system. By the same token, identifying, preventing, and combating judicial corruption requires the involvement of legal professionals of every type and at every level. Three relatively simple measures available to all relevant stakeholders could potentially facilitate those efforts.
First, where not already in place, professional organizations for the various legal professionals (e.g., associations of lawyers, judges, and prosecutors) should devise integrity rules for their members, including as it relates to interactions with other legal professionals. These rules should be widely publicized on their websites and distributed to their members, upheld and promoted by the organizations’ senior leadership, and enforced where breached. These rules should be as clear and practical as possible, and updated periodically to account for evolving dynamics, new risks, and lessons learned. Free training should be offered periodically, and an integrity hotline could potentially be established to address concerns or questions anonymously.
Second, representatives of these professional organizations should communicate with one another often and openly to share concerns, raise suggestions, and exchange experiences, to the extent coordinated efforts are more likely to yield positive results. UNODC’s Global Judicial Integrity Network provides an important forum to that effect, and not just for judges. Other international organizations like the IBA can help compile and publicize best practices for judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, and seek their continuous feedback. For instance, in June 2021, the IBA launched a report that discusses the processes in place to hold judges accountable for their conduct and aims to identify practices that enhance or hinder their accountability for corruption, through disciplinary or criminal procedures.
And finally, individual judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and court personnel can adhere to the IBA-sponsored model judicial anti-corruption compact agreement and commit, among other things, not to engage in or tolerate corrupt practices in the judicial process as well as to report on these issue. Although in most countries legal professionals may already be bound to act lawfully and honestly under local laws or regulations, these duties can seem abstract or vague to the general public. A specific, public, current, and standardized commitment such as the compact may help reinforce or otherwise expand the original oaths of legal professionals, promote greater transparency and accountability, and shine the spotlight on these concerns.
 See The International Bar Association Judicial Integrity Initiative: Judicial Systems and Corruption, May 2016, https://www.ibanet.org/MediaHandler?id=F856E657-A4FC-4783-806E-6AAC6895D37F (last visited September 14, 2021).
 See International Bar Association Judicial Integrity Project, Maintaining judicial integrity and ethical standards in practice: A study of disciplinary and criminal processes and sanctions for misconduct or corruption by judges, June 2021, https://www.ibanet.org/Judicial-integrity-IBA-publishes-new-report (last visited September 14, 2021).
 See International Bar Association, Judicial Integrity Initiative: Judicial Anti-Corruption Compact, August 2016, https://www.ibanet.org/document?id=IBA-Judicial-Anti-Corruption-Compact-2016 (last visited September 14, 2021).