“You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” (Deut. 16:19)
Parashat Shoftim opens with, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes…” (Deut. 16:18) It identifies the four main types of human authority (judge, king, priest, and prophet) and describes the matters under their respective jurisdiction. The Torah does not describe in detail their responsibilities, but does make clear the authority of each is limited. The Torah recognizes the concentration of power in a single individual leads to its abuse, anticipating the US Constitution and Lord Acton by thousands of years.
Shoftim’s goal is a just society, expressed in the well-known verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deut. 16:20) The key to this just society is found in the continuation of the opening verse, “…in the gates of all your cities…” (Deut. 16:18). In Biblical times the gate is more than an entrance; it is the center of city life, a combination city hall, marketplace, courthouse, and community center. By requiring judges to work in a public place, under public scrutiny, Shoftim acknowledges the importance of lay oversight. Insisting upon institutional transparency ensures a fair and impartial process.
A just society is not the responsibility of the judiciary alone (or the other authority figures of the community). Each individual is responsible for maintaining the public’s watchdog function to keep the courts honest. The “public eye” works only if you make sure to look.