The Jewish Ethicist: Fixing Tickets
Can I ask the judge for a favor?
Q. I recently got a ticket for parking in a handicapped space. The sign wasn't so clear and I didn't notice it. Can I ask the judge to let met off?
A. The phenomenon of "ticket fixing" no doubt exists the world over, but I have the distinct impression that it is particularly common in the United States where many local judges are elected and have an interest in doing favors.
There are basically three levels of "fixing." The worst by far is when a judge is paid or otherwise bribed to dismiss a ticket. This is in itself a miscarriage of justice, and simultaneously undermines the system. The Torah commands the judge: "Don't accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the sighted and distorts the words of the righteous" (Exodus 23:8). Rashi comments that accepting a bribe is forbidden "even to judge truthfully." For if the intention was only to forbid giving an improper judgment, "it has already been stated 'Don't pervert judgment'" (Exodus 23:6).
Rashi continues: "Even someone wise in Torah, if he accepts a bribe his judgment will eventually be disturbed and his learning forgotten."
The Torah, together with Rashi's commentary alerts us to a number of dangers involved in giving "presents" to a judge. The simple sense of the verse reminds us that the judgment of the judge is certain to be affected by the gift, and justice will not be done. Rashi adds that even if the same conclusion would have been reached in this particular case without the bribe, giving a bribe involves a distinct transgression, for it undermines the system. The perception of fairness which gives the legal system its legitimacy is harmed. Instead of altering judgment in one particular case due to a bribe, judges may find themselves altering and forgetting their basic principles in a desire to obtain favors and benefits. Ultimately, "judgment is disturbed and learning is forgotten."
A much more common case is where judges dismiss traffic tickets of "privileged personalities." According to news reports, judges have been caught being lenient to their own friends and colleagues, law-enforcement officials and their acquaintances, and to celebrities. This involves a parallel transgression: showing favoritism to one individual. Torah law is extremely strict when it comes to showing favoritism to one side in litigation. The Talmud tells us that the litigants should even be comparably dressed, and if a wealthy person comes to court in ostentatious garments he is told that he should either clothe the poorer litigant in comparable clothes, or he himself should wear simple clothes like his rival! (1)
This case is slightly different, since the judge is not actually adjudicating a case between two litigants but rather the application of a fine imposed by the community. However, Jewish law draws a parallel between the two. The Talmud tells the story of Rav Chama, who was accused of a serious crime. Rav Abba bar Yaakov was appointed to investigate the allegations. Rav Abba went out of his way to seek a lenient judgment, which is the guidance the Torah gives to those judging serious crimes [as we explained in an earlier column]. Rav Chama was grateful and arranged for Rav Abba to be exempted from taxes.
The eminent early authority medieval Rav Asher ben Yaakov explains that this was not a personal gesture. Rather, Rav Abba demonstrated that he was an outstanding Torah scholar, and thus eligible for the exemption which applied to all scholars of this level. Otherwise this gesture would have been considered a kind of forbidden bribery -- despite the fact that it was not litigation and that the gesture was made after the fact.
The final case is the one you discuss, where there is no real leniency in the law, but the judge gives a lenient judgment in order to take account of extenuating circumstances, character, etc. Such considerations would be inappropriate in order to favor one litigant over another, but they are accepted as valid considerations in minor infractions like parking tickets. The very wide authority most jurisdictions give judges to dismiss tickets was evidently intended to allow for exactly this kind of leniency. Indeed, we see from the very same passage in Rav Asher ben Yaakov that it is appropriate to use individual judgment in applying the law, as Rav Abba did when he sought to be lenient on Rav Chama and as Rav Chama did when he strove to obtain an exemption for Rav Abba.
So if you are not asking for any special favoritism because of a special relationship with the judge, there is no reason you can't ask for leniency based on your honest misunderstanding.
Even so, I believe that local judges in the United States have too much latitude in making these judgments, and it would be better if they didn't have such broad authority to dismiss tickets with little real legal cause. In itself it is a harmless authority, but the lack of accountability basically invites the kind of abuse which is responsible for the many "ticket fixing" scandals which plague the American judicial system.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 31a (2) Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b; Rosh and Pilpula Charifta commentaries
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