A judicial conduct committee has rewritten the ethics guidelines
for federal judges in a way that legal experts and critics
said allow judges to take more corporate funded trips and
avoid disclosing their attendance. The committee said it revised
the rules in response to public and congressional criticism
of judges taking all expenses paid trips to "judicial
education" seminars. These events were often held in
luxury hunting lodges and in Arizona golfing resorts, and
paid for at least in part by petroleum, chemical and manufacturing
companies whose interests often come before federal courts,
But critics said the new rules actually weaken the attendance
and disclosure guidelines.
"This effectively clears the path for federal judges
to take lavish, corporate funded trips," Douglas T. Kendall,
executive director of Community Rights Counsel, a group that
has opposed the free trips, wrote in a letter yesterday to
U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen, chairman of the judicial
The new guidelines say a judge should not attend a seminar
in which a financial sponsor provided "substantial"
funding, the sponsor has a case before the judge and the seminar's
topics are "directly related" to the litigation.
Under the previous guidelines, written in 1998, judges were
not to attend seminars in which sponsors providing funding
were "likely" to be involved in litigation before
the courts and the topics were "likely to be in some
manner related" to pending litigation.
The new rules also eliminate a requirement that judges report
the value of such trips, and instead ask judges to "be
mindful of their financial disclosure obligations."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Senate
Judiciary Committee, had proposed in April 2003 a ban on judges
accepting such trips but withdrew his legislation when judges
and court officials promised new self policing guidelines.
Yesterday, Leahy said that he was disappointed that the changes
loosen the standards and that he would reintroduce his legislation.
"Gift disclosure rules apply to presidents and Cabinet
officials and members of Congress," he said. "There's
no good reason why judges in lifetime jobs should not have
the same kind of accountability."
Osteen, a judge in the middle district of North Carolina
who chaired the Committee on Codes of Conduct that wrote the
little noticed revisions in August, did not respond to telephone
calls seeking comment.
The Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the
judicial codes of conduct, released a statement yesterday
saying that the changes give judges more detailed information
on the factors they should consider in deciding whether to
attend such seminars.
In his letter to Osteen, Kendall called the new rules "significantly
weakened" and "disturbing."
He said the ABC News program "20/20" videotaped
Osteen golfing on a corporate paid trip and saying he did
not know who funded the event. Osteen's new rules say that
a judge does not have to investigate a seminar's funding sources,
Kendall wrote to the judge, which would "excuse your
ignorance about the trips' funding sources."
Legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers, a professor at the law
school of New York University, said Osteen's committee may
have had good intentions but made a weak, vague rule "even
softer" and should have considered a clear ban.
"Judges who want to go on these trips, and they're attractive,
will find it easy to decide that this soft guidance allows
them to attend," Gillers said. "In some regards,
it can be read as cutting back on the relatively toothless