A commission that writes ethics rules for judges has recommended
new restrictions, including a $50 limit for some gifts and
a requirement that judges disclose free trips every three
The American Bar Association panel, which is overhauling
the ethics rules for the first time in 15 years, also proposed
a new standard for judges to decide whether it's appropriate
to take an expenses-paid trip: Trips that would "cast
reasonable doubt" on a judge's impartiality would be
Critics wanted more stringent rules.
"The commission could just as well have said, 'Go and
enjoy yourself and don't worry about a thing,'" Stephen
Gillers, an ethics expert at New York University's School
of Law, said Wednesday. "Rarely will any judge believe
that anyone could ever reasonably doubt his or her impartiality
after going on one -- or many -- of these trips."
Steven Lubet, who specializes in ethics law at Northwestern
University, said the commission's recommendation "is
really a commendable effort to deal with a sticky problem."
Lubet cheered a recommendation that judges post information
about their free trips on the Internet, where possible. Paid
trips would have to be reported quarterly, instead of once
He said it will be up to journalists and members of the public
to ensure that judges are not taking unnecessary junkets.
Publicity, Lubet said, will keep judge trips in line.
The ABA, the nation's largest lawyers' group, writes ethics
rules for judges that states and federal courts generally
Normally, the rule-writing gets little attention, but the
11-member commission's work has been under the spotlight since
widespread news accounts called attention to Supreme Court
Justice Antonin Scalia's hunting vacation with Vice President
Dick Cheney in January as the Court was considering Cheney's
appeal in a records secrecy case. Scalia refused to step down
from hearing the case.
The Supreme Court has no written ethics rules, but some justices
have said they follow the ABA ethics code.
Among the ABA recommendations made public this week, judges:
o Would be prohibited from taking gifts worth more than $50,
or $150 per year, from a single person. There are exceptions,
including gifts from relatives and friends and legal-related
o Could accept "ordinary sociability," just like
current rules. But the new definition limits that to "modest
items such as food and refreshments."
o Would be allowed to receive tickets to "widely attended
events" which the commission said would encourage the
professionals to interact with the community.
The panel's final recommendations will be submitted next
year to the ABA's policy-making board for a vote.
Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights
Counsel, a public interest law firm, said the commission recognized
there is a problem with junkets taken by judges but did not
lay out clear rules for when trips are acceptable. He had
suggested a dollar limit to prevent companies from using lavish
seminars for judicial lobbying.
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