The Federal Judge Who Sold Justice: A Review of Gary Stein’s Biography of Martin Manton

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The renowned judges who have served on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit include John Marshall Harlan, Thurgood Marshall, Learned Hand, and Henry Friendly. Each was extraordinarily able and accomplished, and each embodied a notion of the law that was larger than himself.

Then there is Martin Manton, who served on the Second Circuit for more than two decades and nearly was appointed to the United States Supreme Court but has been consigned to the ash heap of judicial history. That’s because Manton resigned from the bench in disgrace in 1939, before he was indicted on federal corruption charges. No one, it seems, wants to be reminded of the federal judge who sold his office.

Nevertheless, as United States Magistrate Judge Gary Stein shows in Justice for Sale: Graft, Greed, and a Crooked Federal Judge in 1930s Gotham, Manton’s story is well worth knowing. Stein presents Manton as both a typical and exceptional figure of his era. He came of age in New York in “the heyday of ‘the racket,’” Stein writes, when the ethos of Tammany Hall prevailed in politics and law. For many, including Manton, public service was appealing because it provided the opportunity for private gain. On the other hand, even at its peak, the culture of Tammany Hall did not extend to the federal judiciary. Manton’s systematic sale of his office in the 1930s—Stein calculates that the judge received improper payments of about $823,000, about $17 million today—was unprecedented.

Stein’s biography of Manton tells a fascinating story of a bygone era while providing a timely reminder that federal judges are all too human, and we should not assume that they will be immune to the temptations, flaws and foibles experienced by others. The ongoing political clash over the federal judiciary has raised professional ethics questions about judges’ behavior off the bench—hence the Supreme Court’s adoption last year of a code of conduct for the Justices. Manton’s misconduct presents an easy case, as it was criminal as well as unethical. The broader point raised by his disgraceful career is that while federal judges are human, they must not engage in conduct that is improper or—no less important—appears to be improper. We cannot afford to live in a society in which justice is seen as a commodity for sale.

Portrait of an Ambitious Young Lawyer

Born in Brooklyn in 1880, Manton grew up in Sayville, Long Island, “far removed from cramped tenement life,” according to Stein. Though Manton later would present his life story in rags-to-riches terms, in fact he was raised in a middle class Irish Catholic family. After graduating from high school with honors, Manton attended Columbia Law School. Manton would later embroider this aspect of his life as well, claiming that he played football under another name, helped start the school’s law review, and graduated with honors. None of Manton’s claims about his time as a law student is verifiable.

After law school, Manton hung out a shingle in Brooklyn. Energetic and ambitious, he developed a lucrative personal injury practice. Manton also took on criminal cases and rose to prominence defending individuals in high-profile murder cases. For an ambitious attorney on the move, political connections were essential; for an Irish-Catholic lawyer in Brooklyn, the Democratic Party was inevitable. Manton joined the Flatbush Democratic Club and regularly campaigned for the party during election season.

In 1909, Manton’s political connections led to his appointment to help defend a Brooklyn judge indicted for bribery. The judge, Henry Furlong, did not dispute that he had received money from litigants before him but insisted the payments had not influenced his rulings; accordingly, Manton argued, Furlong had not committed a crime. This argument was unavailing. Furlong was convicted and sentenced to prison at Sing Sing. Decades later, Stein notes, Manton would follow the same path and fare no better with the same argument.

After the Furlong case, Manton became law partners with his co-counsel, W. Bourke Cockran. They opened an office in the financial district in Manhattan. Manton’s fame and fortune continued to grow, the latter due to extensive real estate investments as well. Manton considered running for office and, in 1914, entered the Democratic primary for a seat in the House of Representatives from Long Island. His opponent was the incumbent, Lathrop Brown, who was held in high regard by President Woodrow Wilson. Though it isn’t clear why, Manton abruptly dropped out of the race before the primary; in doing so, he seems to have earned the President’s goodwill.

Two years later, in 1916, Manton emerged as a leading candidate for a seat on the Second Circuit. President Wilson’s Attorney General, Thomas W. Gregory, “was looking for a candidate who would be acceptable to Tammany and anti-Tammany forces alike and would reflect the administration’s policy views on antitrust and other regulatory issues,” according to Stein. Though Manton fit the bill, Wilson ultimately appointed a sitting federal district court judge to the appeals court and put Manton in that now-vacated district court seat. At the age of 36, Manton was the nation’s youngest federal judge.

Appointment to the Second Circuit—and Almost the Supreme Court

Two years later, President Wilson elevated Manton to the Second Circuit. At age 37, he was the youngest person ever to serve on that court. (Learned Hand, perhaps the greatest judge never to serve on the Supreme Court, and his cousin, Augustus Noble Hand, were among those who also sought this appointment. Subsequently, each was named to the Second Circuit and served with Manton. Neither they nor any other judge on that court ever was implicated in Manton’s corrupt schemes.)

Manton’s ascent to the Second Circuit was swift and steep. Only one higher judicial office remained, and Manton almost scaled that summit as well. In 1922, Manton was nearly appointed to the Supreme Court. President Warren G. Harding already had filled two vacancies—one with Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft, the other with George Sutherland—when a third seat became available with the retirement of Justice William R. Day. Though Harding was a Republican, he felt obligated to appoint a Democrat. “According to then-prevailing custom,” Stein notes, “at least three members of the Supreme Court should hail from the minority party.”

Day’s resignation left only two Democrats on the Court. In addition, Manton was Catholic and from New York—criteria that were important to Harding, as there was only one Catholic Justice on the Court at the time and no New Yorkers. Manton’s supporters pressed hard but Taft blocked the nomination. Quite simply, Stein recounts, Taft despised Manton, viewing him as a “‘shrewd, cunning, political Judge’ lacking in the basic ‘moral qualities’ indispensable to serve in such a high position.” Harding appointed Pierce Butler, a conservative railroad lawyer from Minnesota, instead of Manton.

Justice for Sale

As an attorney, and then as a judge, Manton was heavily invested and involved in a number of businesses, including real estate ventures on which he had given mortgages. While an appellate court judge’s chambers generally resembles a law library, Manton’s “were bustling with activity,” Stein writes, as “a steady stream of litigants and lenders, lawyers and lackeys, business associates and politicians,” and others, including “underworld figures,” trooped in and out.

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Manton was deeply in debt and turned to regularly selling his office to raise desperately needed cash. Through intermediaries, Manton solicited payments from attorneys with cases before him. The scheme worked well in complicated civil cases (patent disputes, litigation over corporate control) with well-heeled parties on both sides. All too often, the attorneys or parties pressed for payment concluded they could not afford to offend one of the three judges responsible for deciding the case.

In one case, involving a patent dispute over the design of Schick’s electric razor, Manton solicited payments from both sides. Schick’s attorneys rebuffed the overtures and lost the case in

the Second Circuit. Manton’s grasp extended to criminal as well as civil cases. Drawing on previously undisclosed FBI files, Stein shows how notorious gangsters—Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro—almost certainly made payments to secure their release on bail, over the objection of prosecutor Thomas Dewey. Once Buchalter and Shapiro were out of jail, they began killing witnesses who could testify against them. (Dewey would turn the tables on Manton several years later.)

In addition to selling his vote, Manton had other ways to make money through his office. He leveraged his administrative authority to appoint receivers in bankruptcy cases for kickbacks and investments in his businesses. In addition, as a very influential official, Manton routinely asked for and received loans from lawyers and businessman who did not want to risk offending him by turning him down. Manton did not repay many of them. “Combining these loans with outright payoffs raises Manton’s total haul to over $2 million, or about $40 million in today’s dollars,” Stein summarizes.

Resignation, Indictment, Conviction, & Prison

Rumors of Manton’s corruption swirled for years in New York City’s legal community but no lawyer was willing to risk publicly confronting the senior judge on the Second Circuit. It took an investigative reporter and a local prosecutor to set the wheels in motion for Manton’s demise. The journalist was Burt Heath of the New York World-Telegram and the prosecutor was Dewey, then the Manhattan District Attorney. Although Dewey did not have jurisdiction over federal offenses, he could investigate whether Manton had violated state law by evading New York’s income tax.

In early 1939, Heath wrote a series of articles describing Manton’s “byzantine business empire” and a suspicious $250,000 loan. Dewey promptly followed with a letter to Congress detailing six instances “in which Manton received loans from litigants or others with business before the Second Circuit.” In his letter, the district attorney stated he was prepared to present evidence should Congress consider impeachment.

These revelations led Manton to announce his resignation on January 30, 1939, a day after Dewey publicized his letter. The Justice Department moved quickly to investigate and charge Manton. On the recommendation of one of his advisers—Thomas Corcoran, known as “Tommy the Cork”—President Franklin D. Roosevelt named John T. Cahill, Corcoran’s friend from law school, as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The energetic Cahill secured his first indictment of Manton by early March. Subsequent indictments followed, alleging different illegal conspiracies. Ultimately, to simplify their case for trial, prosecutors charged Manton with a single count of conspiring to obstruct the administration of justice and defraud the United States. Surprisingly, perhaps, the government did not include a bribery charge in the indictment. Stein explains that this “would have raised the bar for the prosecution and played into Manton’s central defense: that none of the loans and payments changed his vote or affected the court’s decision, which in all but two instances was unanimous.”

In proceeding with a one-count indictment, Cahill elected to bring quickly a relatively simple and straightforward case to trial. (In fact, the trial started in May 1939, less than four months after Manton had stepped down from the bench.) In doing so, Cahill sacrificed the prospect of a longer prison sentence for Manton. If convicted, the maximum sentence would be two years—exactly the sentence Manton received after he was convicted. The jury deliberated for just a few hours before arriving at its verdict.

Manton appealed unsuccessfully to the Second Circuit and then the Supreme Court. Out of appeals, Manton served his sentence at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. After his release, Manton spent the rest of his life in Central New York, far from the city where he “had been a dominant power in [its] civic life,” Stein observes. “Manton went to his grave unapologetic.”

Manton died in obscurity. Stein’s superb biography nevertheless reminds us why we should know the history of perhaps the most corrupt federal judge ever to serve. There can be no absolute assurance that federal judges will be honest and ethical, which is why appropriate and reviewable financial disclosures are essential. The authority of the federal courts comes in large part through the almost-universal acceptance of their integrity. We cannot allow that integrity to be squandered.

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