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Rules for judges
New ethics guidelines won't do anyone any good

The Charlotte Observer
December 26, 2004

Should federal judges be able to take all-expenses-paid trips financed by corporations to improve their judicial education -- and avoid telling the public about it?

Of course not. But critics of a new set of judicial rules believe that may be one result of guidelines that were rewritten this summer and posted on the federal judiciary's Web site in August. The new rules have caught the attention of court watchers who fear they will lead to more conflicts of interest complications for federal judges, not fewer.

Under the old rules, written six years ago, judges were not supposed to attend judicial education seminars where sponsors such as corporations were likely to be involved in court cases, and seminar topics were related to those cases. Watchdog groups feared special interests were taking advantage of the judicial seminars to advance their views on topics related to their litigation.

Last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., proposed legislation that would prohibit judges from accepting such trips. When judges promised to revise their rules with better guidelines on such trips, Sen. Leahy withdrew his legislation. But last week he said he planned to reintroduce the bill because the new rules amounted to weaker guidelines than those they replaced.

Sen. Leahy has a point. Instead of imposing clearer restrictions, the new rules -- drafted by a committee headed at the time by U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen of Greensboro -- appear to make it easier for judges to take junkets for judicial seminars. The new rules say a judge should not accept a trip in which a sponsor provided "substantial" financial support, where a sponsor has a case in a judge's courtroom and where a seminar topic is related to a court case. What's more, judges are supposed to be "mindful of their financial disclosure obligations," but they no longer have to disclose publicly the value of the trips they take.

Judge Osteen's committee may indeed have tried to clarify the rules on what kinds of trips judges may take, but it is difficult to see how these are an improvement over the old rules, watchdog groups contend. Douglas T. Kendall, the executive director of Community Rights Counsel, said the change "effectively clears the path for federal judges to take lavish, corporate-funded trips."

We believe the committee missed an opportunity to declare that free junkets offered to federal judges for judicial education purposes are poorly disguised attempts to influence what judges know and what they think about issues already in their courtrooms, or likely to land there. Judges already have ample opportunity to learn about these issues through a dizzying array of sources -- including their own judicial research.

Accepting trips paid for by special interest sponsors only creates the impression -- and perhaps confirms the reality -- that judges are beholden to those interests rather than to the ideal of an independent, impartial judiciary. Congress should step in and ban these trips outright -- and judges who don't understand why ought to take a hike.


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