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
"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
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.