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Letter to Stephen J. Spingarn on Ethics in Government.

December 29, 1952

My dear Mr. Spingarn:

I have read the documents on ethics in government which you sent me on December twelfth.

You are performing a public service in calling attention to a fundamental principle that is in danger of being carelessly whittled away. No public function lies nearer the roots of government than that of a judge. Realizing this fact, our ancestors took unusual precautions to keep our judges fair and unintimidated. To convict the innocent or to protect the guilty from conviction from corrupt or partisan or private motives, destroys confidence in government and makes government unworthy of confidence.

The principles of judicial impartiality and its companion, judicial immunity from pressure and influence, have long been axiomatic in the system of justice entrusted to our courts. They are equally applicable to the many judicial functions that have come to be entrusted to independent commissions. Whether a case comes before court or commission, the public has a right to know that the decision will be made on the merits of the issue and not in response to any private inducements.

In the relatively rare instances in which the power to enforce the law is subverted to private ends for a bribe, the public is justly shocked--although in condemning the bribe taker it sometimes neglects to condemn equally the bribe giver. But a few people who would not offer a judge money see no harm in trying to cajole him by influence or intimidate him by threats, express or implied. Many more people see no harm in using such tactics against quasi-judicial commissions. Attempts to control government decisions by pressure or influence are far more common than by bribery. Where they are successful, they pervert government to private ends in the same way. The evil of bribery lies not in the gain received by an official but in the destruction of justice and the undermining of government; the evil of influence or intimidation is the same.

Of course, persons affected by government actions have every right to present fully the facts and the merits concerning the issues involved. It is often difficult to draw the line between a legitimate presentation on the merits and an unethical approach based on influence and intimidation. But we know that such a line does exist and that all too often the unethical approach is used by some business interests.

The organized campaign of misrepresentation now being waged against the staff report on oil cartels prepared in your Commission is a good illustration of attempted coercion and intimidation. I think there can be no excuse, for example, for the vituperative attacks upon the motives and even the loyalty of those responsible for the report. Certainly, it does not contribute to the Nation's security for propaganda of that kind to be spread all over the world in an effort to discredit the Government of the United States.

There is no simple answer to the problem of improper pressures brought to bear upon government officials. But it is clear that the answer must lie in part with the officials themselves. They must recognize these pressures for what they are and have the courage to stand against them. I am sure that the discussion you have provoked during these recent weeks will contribute greatly to that end and that much good will come of it.

Sincerely yours,


[Honorable Stephen J. Spingarn, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C.]

Note: Mr. Spingarn's letter, dated December 12, was released with the President's reply.

Harry S. Truman, Letter to Stephen J. Spingarn on Ethics in Government. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/231276

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