Reforming the Law By John Steele Gordon

    Is it possible for the legal profession to reform itself?

Once upon a time, the American legal profession reformed itself. No, that’s not the start of a lawyer joke. It actually happened. It was, to be sure, a long time ago.

In the years immediately after the Civil War, the United States, and especially New York City and state, reached a level of corruption that is hard to imagine today. The modest Tweed Courthouse just north of City Hall in New York, for instance, cost — as near as anyone can figure out — about $12 million to build. The British Houses of Parliament, built 20 years earlier, cover six acres and were designed to house the central political institution of the richest country on earth in unmatched splendor. They cost $10 million.

Things got so bad that in 1868 the New York state legislature actually passed a bill, duly signed into law by the governor, that had the effect of legalizing bribery. The law stated that no conviction on a charge of bribery could be had solely upon the testimony of one party to the bribe. In a pre-electronic age that meant that as long as public officials took bribes in private and in cash, they were safe from prosecution.

And take bribes they did. The English magazine Fraser’s reported that legislators “flocked to Albany likes beeves to a cattle-mart. All were for sale, and each brought a price proportioned to his weight.”

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