A proposal pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee--which could see action before Congress adjourns--would place tight restrictions on attendance by federal judges at corporate-sponsored seminars and other nongovernmental activities.
The measure, sponsored by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), would be attached as an amendment to a bill raising judicial salaries that the committee began to mark up Dec. 13 but did not finish.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee has no current plans to schedule another mark-up session before the Senate's expected adjournment Dec. 21. But another senior committee aide told BNA there is still a possibility the committee could clear the bill in the coming days.
"I expect the amendment will pass in committee," said the committee staffer. "Even senators like Feingold, who originally opposed the salary increase, will support the bill if it includes the restrictions on gifts and travel."
AMENDMENT WOULD BAN TRIPS TO SEMINARS
The amendment, which would become Section 5 of the Federal Judicial Salary Restoration Act (S. 1638), would impose a flat ban on attendance by "a federal judge or justice" at any event "a significant purpose of which is the education of United States federal or state judges." The amendment provides an exception to allow attendance at such events sponsored by federal or state governments or bar associations.
On Dec. 12, the House Judiciary Committee approved a companion bill (H.R. 3753) to increase judicial salaries, but the bill does not limit travel reimbursement or gifts.
The Feingold-Kyl amendment would place a limit of $1,500 on gifts, food, lodging, or other reimbursement for any single nongovernmental event not sponsored by a bar association, with an aggregate limit on gifts and reimbursement of $5,000 for a single year.
The amendment is aimed at addressing public concern about the growing practice of corporate sponsorship of seminars for both state and federal judges, events which often are held at expensive resorts. The trips have fueled perceptions that judges may have conflicts of interest when they participate in cases that involve corporate sponsors of the conferences, or that the conferences may sway judges to favor corporate agendas.
"It's utterly appropriate that if judges get a raise, they give up these controversial perks," said Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group that has long opposed what Kendall has called "junkets for judges."
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the federal judicial branch's support office, did not immediately return a call for comment on the proposal. The judicial branch has fought hard in recent years for an increase in judicial salaries, which have remained essentially flat for nearly two decades, except for cost of living increases.
CURRENT JUDICIAL POLICY REQUIRES DISCLOSURES
The Feingold-Kyl amendment follows earlier action by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal judiciary's policymaking body, which in September 2006 approved new rules requiring outside groups providing reimbursement for judicial travel expenses to report information about their event to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, including the source of financial support for the program (182 DER A-36, 09/20/06).
The policy, which became effective Jan. 1, also requires the Administrative Office to post on its Web site (http://www.uscourts.gov) any information it receives from the sponsors of conferences. The policy bars a judge from accepting "travel, food, lodging, reimbursement, or anything that would be considered a gift" unless the judge "ascertains from the Judiciary's Web site that the program provider has made the disclosure required.