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Senator Questions New Rules OKing More 'Judicial Junkets'

Los Angeles Daily Journal
December 20, 2004
Brent Kendall

WASHINGTON - Recent changes to judicial ethics guidelines could make it easier for federal judges to accept expense-paid trips to seminars funded by corporations and other private entities, according to a leading Democratic senator and a group that monitors so-called "judicial junkets."

In August, the conduct committee of the Judicial Conference, the policy-making body of the federal courts, introduced longer and more-detailed guidelines on the seminars after receiving numerous questions on whether judges could attend the programs.

The new guidelines, detailed in an "advisory opinion," raised little attention until Thursday when Douglas Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, a public-interest law firm that has monitored the seminars, blasted the changes.

The committee "has quietly rewritten its ethics rules so that inconvenient facts - such as who is paying the bills - no longer get in the way of what one judge has called his 'vacation,'" Kendall wrote in a three-page letter to U.S. District Judge William Osteen of North Carolina, the former chairman of the conference's Committee on Codes of Conduct. Kendall said the old guidelines contained a clear ban that prevented judges from attending a private seminar if the funding came from a party that was involved, or likely to be involved, in litigation relating to the seminar's topics.

"The new guidance blurs this simple ban to such an extent that it effectively clears the path for federal judges to take lavish, corporate-funded trips," Kendall wrote.

Recently, he said that the new, more-detailed guidelines are weaker because they provide multiple "outs" for judges who want to participate in the seminars.

Kendall said the new guidelines also weaken judges' financial-disclosure obligations for the trips.

In response to the changes, the leading Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said he planned to introduce legislation that would restrict attendance at privately funded seminars and would institute higher financial-disclosure standards.

"Gift disclosure rules apply to presidents and Cabinet officials and members of Congress," Leahy said in a statement. "There's no good reason why judges in lifetime jobs should not have the same kind of accountability."

Leahy had planned to move forward on the legislation in 2003, but he stopped the effort that May at the request of judicial officials who wanted more time to work on self-regulation.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts released a statement Thursday that said the revised guidelines were "intended to present a more thorough and thoughtful treatment of the issues."

The statement said that the conduct committee's "essential advice" on attending the seminars "remains unchanged."
The revised guidelines "should assure that judges are less likely to make choices that could appear problematic," the statement said.

Leahy spokesman David Carle said the senator believes the revisions weakened the old guidelines and made financial disclosure standards less transparent.

Carle said Leahy planned to draw attention to the issue by asking judicial nominees about it during their confirmation hearings before the Judiciary Committee.

Kendall said two-thirds of federal judges never takes the seminar-trips in question.

The other third has taken one or more of the trips during the last decade, with some taking as many as 20, he said.


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