WASHINGTON - Rules on gifts for judges are being overhauled
for the first time in 15 years, with a commission looking
at ways to cut down on the trinkets, expense paid trips, and
other freebies given to members of the bench.
Some on the American Bar Association panel are concerned
about the vagueness of the current rules, such as allowing
judges to accept any "ordinary social hospitality."
The commission's work is gaining more attention since Supreme
Court Justice Antonin Scalia took a hunting vacation with
Vice President Dick Cheney early this year while the court
was considering Cheney's appeal in a records secrecy case.
Scalia refused to step down from hearing the case, and was
battered by newspapers questioning his impartiality and judges'
"With all the controversy with Justice Scalia's hunting
trip, it's come to the forefront that the rules with respect
to gifts and travel really aren't all that clear," said
Jan Baran, a Washington attorney and commission member.
The 400,000 member ABA, the nation's largest lawyers' group,
writes ethics rules that states and federal courts generally
adopt, with some changes.
The 11-member commission, which includes some judges, is
working on a proposal that is expected to be released next
week for public comment.
The final plan, to be voted on next summer by the ABA, eventually
could affect thousands of judges. The nine Supreme Court justices
have no written ethics rules, but some members of the court
have informally agreed to follow the ethics code.
The current rules do not require judges, on their own, to
disclose when they accept gifts. The commission may change
States have various reporting requirements. A law requires
federal judges to file yearly reports, but those reports lack
important details, like the value of paid trips. Also, judges
can ask a judicial committee to keep parts of their reports
Judges can accept gifts from friends for special occasions
and free travel to law related events.
"This is probably the best chance there will ever be
for internal reform by the judiciary" on trip taking
because of the recent attention to judges' ethics, said Doug
Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel,
a public interest law firm.
"If the commission says junkets are unacceptable, the
judiciary will have to accept this conclusion," Kendall
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has acknowledged concerns
about judges' ethics. This year, he named a committee to consider
whether judges have been lax in policing themselves.
Rehnquist himself has been the focus of some ethical criticism.
Watchdog groups complained when a utility company flew Rehnquist
on its corporate jet to Ohio in May to speak at the dedication
of the state Supreme Court's new building.
Ohio Citizen Action questioned the trip because of a pending
lawsuit by the government claiming the utility, American Electric
Power, violated the clean air laws.