New book reconsiders legal understanding of corruption

Laura Underkuffler

Laura Underkuffler, professor of law, has spent much of her career examining a “black hole” other scholars have left untouched: She challenges the idea that corruption is simply an illegal, quid-pro-quo transaction, arguing that this fails to capture the entire idea of corruption – including some beneficial, important functions that it serves.

“Corruption is something that human beings instinctively loathe and that we try to excise from our midst. The word itself conjures something that is powerful, insidious and destructive of human lives and institutions,” Underkuffler writes in her new book, “Captured by Evil: The Idea of Corruption in Law” (Yale University Press).

Underkuffler, the J. DuPratt White Professor of Law and associate dean for academic affairs at Cornell Law School, teaches an introductory course in property as well as advanced courses in land-use and property theory. Her interest in religion, moral decision making, and corruption and law informs her teaching, she said.

“Corruption is what common definitions reflect: Violation of law, breach of a public duty, the denial of political equality and so on,” she said. “It also involves self-involvement, self-indulgence and the loosening and discarding of the constraints of social bonds. Although the law generally sees legal decision-makers – judges and juries – as agents, not involved in whimsical moral decision making, corruption cases are different. In these cases, the law invites judges and juries to think in terms of ‘evil,’ ‘perversion,’ ‘defilement’ and ‘sin.’ It is the ‘capture by evil’ of one’s soul.”

Underkuffler said she was visiting Venezuela as a guest legal scholar when she encountered very different ideas of corruption than in the United States, and she began to explore why they were different. “It was a combination of my religion work and my work in South America that created the impetus for writing this book,” she said.

Her book, which explores the danger of maintaining this concept of corruption at the center of criminal law, took Underkuffler a couple of decades to work through. She believes the concepts of moral decision making and corruption are so incompatible with what we think of as legal ideas – as logical and mechanical – that no one wants to explore it.

“When I began, many people I talked to said corruption is black hole: everyone is intrigued by it, but no one can ever seem to write anything that really illuminates the concept. The standard works in corruption seem to be basically, ‘we don’t know what it is, but we’re just going to adopt a basic understanding…’”

It became evident to Underkuffler that there was no way to wholeheartedly condemn or embrace this ubiquitous idea of corruption in a legal context. As she demonstrates in her book, corruption as capture-by-evil can be a dangerous idea, especially in government and in the treatment of someone who is accused. However,  “capture by evil” – the legal concept of possession of the individual by evil – may not always be a bad thing, she argues. It captures the unique power of corruption, including its power to change norms.

“There’s something about corruption that seems to fascinate all of us. Every time I mention that I’m working on corruption, people are always intrigued,” Underkuffler said, noting that her book is written for a general audience. “I think part of that is that the idea itself is very powerful – there’s some idea of evil, rottenness, a very powerful image. Corruption is something that arouses our deepest emotions, making it a very difficult thing to think about and write about in law.”

Rebecca Harrison ’14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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