As long as the subject of ethics reform has the attention of Congress, it's time to expand on the subject. Members of Congress are banned from taking junkets -- indeed, questionable trips taken by some representatives are what got the attention in the first place.
Junkets by federal judges should be on the banned list as well.
Of course, judges will say that they don't go on junkets, but rather offer educational talks about the judiciary, or attend conferences as the guests of businesses or special-interest groups so they might become more knowledgeable.
Nonetheless, the trip to the RitzCarlton ski resort in Beaver Creek, Colo., that Justice Antonin Scalia went on in September certainly looked like a junket. ABC's "Nightline" program reported that while running a 10-hour seminar over the course of a few days for the Federalist Society, Scalia played tennis, fly-fished and socialized.
If a federal prosecutor had taken such a junket, he or she would have violated the law. But federal judges operate under a different set of rules.
"Junkets for members of Congress are bad, but junkets for federal judges -- our nation's purported umpires -- are far worse," said Doug Kendell, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm that provides assistance help defend community-protection laws. "With nervous lawmakers in Washington trying to outdo each other in responding to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, there is no better time to clean up the judicial branch as well."
Kendell went on to say that John Roberts, during his confirmation hearings as U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, said he didn't think special-interest groups should be permitted to lobby federal judges. "We hope the new chief justice will work with members of Congress to agree upon a solution that protects both judicial independence and public trust in the judicial branch," added Kendell.
Neither judicial independence nor the public trust is protected now. In 2000, Kendell compiled a 125-page report for the Community Rights Counsel, titled "Nothing for Free." Among the findings: "In 1998, more than 10 percent of the nation's federal judges jetted off to a luxury resort to attend a private seminar. The education judges receive at these trips is one-sided, with the pro-market, anti-regulatory seminars of [three special-interest organizations] dominating the market of private judicial education."
The report also noted:
- In 10 of the past decade's most dramatic departures from established precedent, the judge striking down environmental protections took part in at least one junket.
- In six of these cases, the judge attended the seminar while the case was pending.
- In at least three of these cases, the judge ruled in favor of a litigant bankrolled by the seminar's sponsors.
In 2001, ABC's "20/20" program aired a hidden-camera investigation of a federal judges' conference, at a resort in Arizona, paid for by groups funded by corporations that often had cases pending before the judges.
Such reports have prompted legislation to regulate or ban the trips. Last week, three U.S. senators introduced legislation to place limits on the expense-paid trips. The senators -- Patrick Leahy, DVt., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Russ Feinfold, D-Wis. -- want judges to maintain a "recusal list" of companies in which they have a financial interest or potential conflict.
Leahy, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he had hoped "the federal judiciary would engage in self-regulation on these timely and substantive ethical issues," but there were still "continued appearances of impropriety, even by a member of the Supreme Court."
Florida Sens. Mel Martinez, R, and Bill Nelson, D, know that junkets are bad for elected officials, bad for federal prosecutors and bad for federal employees. They should support making them bad for federal judges as well.