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ABA Panel Proposes Changes in Gift Rules for Judges


The Associated Press
October 7, 2004
Gina Holland

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 months.

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 unacceptable.

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 a year.

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 adopt.

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 trips.

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.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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