WASHINGTON - Two U.S. senators are trying to make a proposed pay increase for the federal judiciary more palatable to Congress by inserting into the legislation a ban on judges attending controversial all-expenses-paid educational junkets.
The senators, Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., have circulated an early draft of their proposed amendment to the Federal Judicial Salary Restoration Act, which is currently pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The draft amendment would ban judges from attending "a program, a significant purpose of which is the education of United States federal or state judges," hosted by any organization other than the federal government or relevant judicial and bar association groups.
The issue has been a bone of contention between the judiciary and Congress in recent years following a series of media accounts of judges attending educational seminars that were funded by organizations that receive donations from big business and other interest groups.
The proposal, which could be altered before being formally introduced, would also put a limit on gifts, including travel expenses and accommodation that exceed $1,500 for a single trip of $5,000 over the course of a year.
Other senators on the committee have indicated interest in the amendment, sources say.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has not stated publicly where he stands, but he has previously introduced legislation that would ban junkets and has been critical of the judiciary's handling of the matter.
One of the most outspoken critics of judicial seminars, Douglas Kendall, of public-interest law firm Community Rights Counsel, welcomed the development.
"I think it's true that if you are going to give judges a $50,000 raise, it's a perfect opportunity to do something about this," he said.
The committee could take up the issue as early as next Thursday, after the Senate returns from its holiday recess.
The underlying bill, welcomed by the judiciary, calls for district judges to earn $247,800, a substantial increase over the current salary of $166,000.
Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the U.S. Judicial Conference, declined to comment on the proposed amendment, although he noted that the judiciary continues to support judges attending seminars as long as they follow the conference's disclosure procedures.
"The bottom line is that the Judicial Conference thinks that judges can clearly go to seminars," he said.
A statement on the judiciary's Web site says that the Judicial Conference "believes that neither it nor any other entity should seek to limit judges' access to knowledge or censor their right to increase that knowledge."
At least one impetus for the junkets ban appears to be the belief among some committee members that the pay raise is too much, according to sources familiar with the process.
Committee spokeswoman Erica Chabot conceded that "the big concern" raised by certain senators was the amount of the proposed raise.
But she added that it's not clear whether passage of the Kyl-Feingold amendment will be enough to win over the doubters.
Kendall is hopeful that it will at least convince Feingold and Kyl themselves.
"Feingold and Kyl have been hesitant about the pay raise, but it may help," he said of the amendment.
The House Judiciary Committee has passed a less generous bill that would increase salaries by 31 percent, meaning that a district court judge would earn $218,000.
That bill does not contain a provision banning the junkets.
The Judicial Conference took action in fall 2006 to address concerns about judges attending the privately-funded seminars.
It introduced a new regulation requiring all groups holding such seminars, including the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University in Virginia, to disclose their financial contributors.
The Daily Journal reported in August 2006 that 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld had attended seminars at the Law and Economics Center that were part-funded by ExxonMobil Corp.
Fairbanks, Alaska-based Kleinfeld, who was not aware of Exxon's involvement, is one of the judges on a panel that reduced the damages that ExxonMobil had to pay as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.