WASHINGTON — Two senior Republicans want to set up an independent watchdog over the federal judiciary to police judges' acceptance of free trips or their possible financial interests with groups that could appear before them in court.
"Such behavior undermines the public's perception of our judicial system and the fairness and respect that are needed to instill confidence in our judiciary," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the judiciary's policing of itself "is not up to snuff."
"An inspector general is just the right medicine the federal judiciary needs to ensure it is complying with its own ethical guidelines and to root out potential waste, fraud and abuse," he said.
Sensenbrenner's bill would establish an inspector general to oversee all federal magistrates, district court judges and appeals court judges but not the nine justices on the Supreme Court. Grassley's bill would include them.
Because the Constitution established the nation's highest court and Congress as co-equal branches of government, Sensenbrenner said directing an inspector general to oversee Supreme Court justices could pose constitutional problems.
Both bills would direct Chief Justice John Roberts to appoint an inspector general who would report annually to him and to Congress, establish whistle-blower protections for court employees and recommend changes in laws or regulations affecting the judiciary. The new inspector general also would be directed to report any judicial misconduct to the Justice Department.
Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the federal courts, said Friday that the judiciary already is subject to congressional oversight and has internal mechanisms for policing itself.
Establishing an inspector general responsible to any entity outside the judicial branch, such as Congress, "would be a serious incursion into judicial independence," Carelli said.
The policy-making Judicial Conference of the United States, a 27-judge body whose presiding officer is the chief justice, went on the record in 1996 as "strongly opposing the creation of an IG in the judicial branch."
The Ethics in Government Act requires federal judges to file financial disclosure reports as a check on conflicts of interest. Security risks to federal judges prompted Congress to allow judges to redact, or black out, information that could put them at risk. The redaction authority expired last year. House and Senate members have not agreed on whether to renew it permanently or temporarily.
Sensenbrenner and Grassley said recently disclosed violations of ethics rules show that the judiciary cannot be trusted to police itself.
The Community Rights Counsel, a public interest law firm that represents environmental interests, issued a report Friday saying the number of trips taken by federal judges and paid for by interest groups has increased by about 25 percent since the 1990s.