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Lessons From the Most Corrupt Judge in U.S. History

6 minute read
Gary Stein, an attorney and former federal prosecutor, is the author of Justice For Sale: Graft, Greed, and a Crooked Federal Judge in 1930s Gotham

We tend to think of our judges as black-robed monastics cloistered in their temples of justice, hermetically sealed off from worldly temptations. History teaches us this is not always so. Long before recent news reports about current U.S. Supreme Court Justices accepting gifts from private parties, a sordid and shocking case of judicial corruption–the worst in our nation’s history–unspooled in a downtown courtroom in Depression-era Manhattan. Though largely forgotten today, it serves as an enduring reminder that judges, too, are human.

Martin T. Manton was not just any judge. From 1918 to 1939, Manton served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, based in New York City. Even more so than today, New York then was the beating heart of the country’s commercial, financial, cultural, religious, and political life. This meant that the Second Circuit decided a disproportionate share of the country’s most consequential lawsuits. And it earned Manton, the court’s senior judge beginning in 1927, the informal title of “the tenth-ranking judge in the United States,” below only the nine Justices of the Supreme Court. A Columbia law graduate and the recipient of honorary degrees from five other universities, Manton came within a whisker of being appointed to the Supreme Court himself.

As if his day job weren’t enough, the prodigiously energetic jurist engaged in an impressive array of extrajudicial activities. Knighted by the Pope in 1924, he ranked as one of the top Catholic laymen in the United States. He was a leading proponent of international peace organizations such as the World Court. Unusually active for a judge in partisan politics, he is said to have played a key role in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential nomination at the 1932 Democratic convention. On top of all this, he managed a small business empire out of his chambers, with extensive real estate holdings and interests in a variety of operating companies.

Less visibly, Manton operated a side business with a more unwholesome objective: cashing in on his status and power as a judge.

In literally dozens of cases, Manton solicited payments and “loans” (many never repaid) from litigants, or the lawyers representing them, in cases in the Second Circuit.  Invariably, he would then write the decision for the court finding in favor of the party that fattened his bank account.  In all, Manton raked in some $17 million (in today’s dollars) from his schemes.  His prosecutor fittingly dubbed him a “merchant of justice,” who systematically abused his judicial office for private gain on a scale unmatched by any federal judge before or since.

All sorts of legal controversies proved grist for Manton’s corruption mill: high-stakes patent infringement battles between business rivals, internecine corporate disputes between stockholders and corporate officers, a constitutional challenge mounted by railroad interests to New York’s longstanding nickel subway fare, federal criminal prosecutions. Manton deployed a network of fixers, bagmen, and front men who helped to identify sources of bribes, negotiate the terms, and conceal the proceeds inside a maze of opaque financial arrangements. He even enlisted the help of another federal judge to deliver promised judicial benefits in some cases.

Sometimes the bribe money was paid in cash, which Manton stuck in a safe he kept in his chambers in the federal courthouse. Sometimes the benefits flowed to Manton’s family members, as when an insurance broker hired by receivers appointed by Manton agreed to funnel kickbacks to the judge’s sister and niece. On one occasion a litigant financed the cost of a transatlantic voyage for Manton’s summer vacation.

Manton’s machinations in some ways merely reflected the Tammany Hall credo of “honest graft,” in George Washington Plunkitt’s famous phrase: the idea that public servants were expected and entitled to profit off their positions. In such a culture, there was no shortage of private actors willing to feed the judge’s greed, even at the highest echelons of the business and legal elite. Among the many litigants who stuffed Manton’s pockets were the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturer, its second largest maker of electric razors, the head of the Warner Brothers movie studio, and the biggest baby chick hatchery on the East Coast. Prominent Wall Street lawyers orchestrated, facilitated, or closed their eyes to these illicit payments, including a Columbia law school classmate of Manton who was disbarred for his actions, and Thomas Chadbourne, founder of the venerable Chadbourne Parke law firm and one of the most influential lawyers of the era.

Read More: Sachems And Sinners, An Informal History of Tammany Hall

Even more disturbingly, Manton’s confederates included the underworld forces who, in tandem with the Tammany Hall political machine, ruled much of New York in the 1930s. As revealed in previously undisclosed FBI files, Manton fraternized with racketeers and accepted large loans and gifts from such unsavory sources. Compelling evidence shows that the two most notorious gangsters of the era, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, arranged a payoff to Manton to secure their release on bail – whereupon they promptly began assassinating the witnesses against them. “He’s the only federal judge left in New York we can use to get people out of jail,” Tammany Hall boss and underworld ally Jimmy Hines reportedly said of Manton.

Today the risk of “another Manton” has been lessened by stringent financial disclosure requirements and ethical standards governing federal judges (though those standards are not binding on Supreme Court Justices). But criminal laws and canons of judicial ethics existed in Manton’s day too, and he nearly escaped accountability. Reports of his corruptibility had made their way to the FBI years earlier and were dutifully passed on by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to senior officials in FDR’s Justice Department, where they inexplicably languished. It took an enterprising reporter for the anti-Tammany New York World-Telegram to bring Manton’s misdeeds to light, aided by Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, who publicly released the findings of a probe by his office into Manton’s activities. At that point the Justice Department had no choice but to open its own investigation. In June 1939, after a trial in the very federal courthouse where he had once reigned supreme, a jury found Manton guilty. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

To the end, Manton insisted he’d done nothing wrong, because he would have ruled the same way regardless of the lucre bestowed by litigants. The appeals court that upheld his conviction emphatically disagreed, declaring that “judicial action, whether just or unjust, is not for sale” and warning that if Manton’s argument were sustained, “the event will mark the first step toward the abandonment of that imperative requisite of even-handed justice”: that “the judge must be perfectly and completely independent.” Words worth heeding in any era.

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