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Watchdogs help keep judicial corruption in check

By George B. MerryStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 1981


''Lawyer Accused In Coruzzi Bribe Case Indicted.'' ''Coruzzi Indicted In Bribe.'' These Page 1 headlines from the Nov. 20 and Nov. 21 Camden (N.J.) Courier-Post, involving the troubles of a superior court judge, are somber reminders that even jurists may go astray.

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Judge Peter J. Coruzzi, who was suspended from the bench following his Nov. 6 arrest outside the Camden courthouse where he sits, is accused of accepting a $ 12,000 bribe from a convicted arsonist he was scheduled to sentence later that day.

If found guilty of any of the five charges in a grand jury indictment - one of conspiracy, one of misconduct, and three of bribery - he could face a 5-to-10 -year prison sentence, a stiff fine, and removal from the bench.

Although some judges continue to run into trouble with the law, instances of corruption among judges are not widespread across the nation. One of the reasons: watchdog agencies that have sprung up in all 50 states, mostly in the last decade.

For example, last April Rochester, N.Y., City Court Judge Carl R. Scacchetti was sentenced to a year in jail following his conviction in federal court on two counts of improperly using his office for extortion of goods and services.

Judge Scacchetti has been suspended from the bench for the past 21 months and is appealing his conviction. But he now faces permanent removal from office by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which took disciplinary action to bar him Nov. 24. At this writing Scacchetti had not appealed that ruling.

Special agencies like the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct now are operational in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In recent years, they have been playing an increasingly important role in investigating complaints against the judiciary.

In the process, despite sometimes limited staff and authority, these agencies have helped strengthen public confidence in the integrity of the nation's courts.

Although no close observers of the nation's courts suggest that this approach alone will provide all the needed reform, they generally agreed it is having a favorable impact.

Together with codes of judicial conduct, which most states have adopted since 1971, the special agencies have had a positive influence on judicial conduct and have been '' a real boon to improvement of justice,'' comments Ernest Zavodnyik, staff director of the American Bar Association's judicial administration division.

Most judges, he feels, generally view the commissions on conduct ''as a necessary element in helping the judiciary do its job well.''

He notes, however, that these panels, usually comprising judges, lawyers, and laymen, vary in effectiveness from state to state.

Increased public awareness of the conduct review process has spurred a continuing flow of complaints in some states, which last year totaled 4,191 nationally. These, however, involve only a small fraction of judges. The vast majority of complaints are deemed either groundless or beyond the commission's legal scope, explains Irene Tesitor of the American Judicature Society, who heads up the Chicago-based Center for Judicial Conduct Organizations.

Complaints to judicial review agencies in the 45 states and the District of Columbia that responding to her group's 1980 questionnaire, the number of filed varied widely, from 692 in New York to 3 in Delaware. Five other states - Arkansas, Hawaii, Montana, Rhode Island, and South Dakota - also had fewer than 10 complaints of alleged misconduct.