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How do you keep an honest man honest?

It is not enough that honest men are appointed Judges. All know the influence of interest on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgment is warped by that influence. To this bias, we add that of esprit de corps, of their peculiar maxim and creed that “it is the office of a good Judge to enlarge his jurisdiction” … I repeat that I do not charge the Judges with wilful and ill-intentioned error, but honest error must be arrested, where its toleration leads to public ruin … so judges should be removed from their bench, whose erroneous biases are leading us to dissolution.
Autobiography, 1821
Taken from Koch & Peden’s Life & Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, P. 78-79

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders know that even honest people must be held accountable.
Jefferson had been concerned for years that federal judges had no check on their authority. They were appointed for life. Even honest men could be drawn astray. Unlike members of Congress and the President who were accountable to the voters, judges had no such limitation on their authority. They could be impeached, but several instances had convinced Jefferson that impeachment provisions were toothless.

In order to keep an honest man honest (a judge or any other person), he must be held accountable in a realistic and practical manner. While affirming the judiciary and its practitioners in general, he wanted a way to remove judges who got carried away with personal or political interests that threatened the republic.

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2 Responses to How do you keep an honest man honest?

  1. Ray Tewksbury says:

    Since the founding fathers realized that judges would be subject to the corrupting influences of power, why then did they set up the system so that judges are appointed for life?

    • Thomas Jefferson Leadership says:

      Can’t say. I’m not a student of the Constitutional Convention or the Federalist Papers, which might contain some of the reasoning. Jefferson didn’t raise this objection when he first read the new Constitution in France in 1787. He did object to the provision that allowed the President to be re-elected indefinitely. That showed his reservation to an individual being able to occupy a position of authority for a long while.
      Also, Jefferson’s ideas on the role the judiciary would fill are still difficult to discern. I’ve read two books on his constitutional thoughts, and it’s still not clear to me. This is clear, though. He never envisioned judges having the kind of the authority they would eventually claim. Without that reach, perhaps he wasn’t concerned about a lifetime appointment? Once he saw that reach firsthand, he became very concerned. He thought judges should stand for approval periodically by the houses of Congress, and that there needed to be a more effective way of removing compromised judges from the bench.

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