Watchdogs help keep judicial corruption in check

''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.

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.

Meanwhile, 10 states other than New York reported handling more than 100 complaints. They are California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

After the first few years a review commission operates in a state, the number of complaints tends to level off or even drop, observes Ms. Tesitor. She notes that the work of these panels last year resulted in six judges being ousted, four suspended, one involuntarily retired, 52 privately censured, and 12 publicly censured. Nine judges resigning or retired after formal charges were brought, and 35 resigning or retired while under investigation.

The 1980 permanent judicial oustings by conduct commissions included one each in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

In 1979 there were but four outright removals - one each in Nevada and New York and two in Pennsylvania.

Methods of investigation and types of discipline differ from state to state, with public hearings provided in only 18 states. Ordinarily, complete confidentiality is required until the commission acts or makes its recommendations to the state's highest court. In the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Nevada, and New York, however, the panel's decision becomes final unless overturned through a court appeal, to which the condemned judge is entitled.

Judge Scacchetti is the 24th jurist in New York State to be ousted by the conduct commission since April 1978. Only two of those previously so disciplined won their appeal and came off with a less-stringent punishment.

In addition to those permanently removed from the bench, at least 95 others have been censured by the New York commission for various types of misconduct.

''We average about 6,000 complaints a year and of them only about 21 percent lead to formal investigations,'' reports Gerard Stern, administrator of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

While declining to speculate what the future might hold, he says he is ''optimistic that conditions are better.'' He attributes this not only to the efforts of his and similar agencies but to judges who ''are now more sensitive to ethical standards.''

That the number of misconduct complaints may be declining is underscored by the fact that the current 692 in New York last year is some 200 fewer than in 1978. The number of complaints requiring investigation has declined too.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts State Commission on Judicial Conduct had 85 complaints in 1979, its first full year, 55 in 1980, and thus far but 46 in 1981 .

Judicial misconduct charges run the gamut from fixing traffic tickets to off-bench conduct unbefitting a public official.

The reasons for judicial removals have been many, including assault, bribery, extortion, embezzlement, and morals offenses. Lesser misconduct, such as sitting on cases in which the judge has a personal interest, also have resulted in dismissals.

Other types of misconduct that have frequently led to the disciplining of judges include: providing preferential treatment to certain defendants or other litigants as a favor to friends, family, or fellow judges; appointing relatives or friends to various court-supervised trusts, and being insensitive to the rights of defendants.

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