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CRC News Releases

October 15, 2003
Contact: Kristin Weber or Suzanne Mishkin 202-887-8255


Watchdog Groups Urge ABA to Adopt Standards That Will Curb Judicial Conflicts of Interest

On October 15, 2003, HALT and Community Rights Counsel (CRC), public interest groups that advocate for a more fair judicial system, jointly urged an American Bar Association commission to revise the Model Code of Judicial Conduct to include strict requirements for financial disclosure, recusal lists, certification and privately-funded junkets for judges.

"Americans deserve a judiciary that observes the highest ethical standards," stated HALT Executive Director James C. Turner. "When judges accept gifts from special interests groups or preside over cases where they have a financial interest, it is simply wrong."

"Judicial stock conflicts and junkets are undermining public confidence in the judicial branch," stated CRC Executive Director Douglas Kendall. "The ABA must include a solution to these problems in its new Model Code."

In response to a request from the ABA commission, the groups issued written comments calling for clear, specific ethical standards. The Model Code, which will be amended for the first time in 13 years, has been adopted, at least in part, by the vast majority of states.

While the current Model Code provides broad guidance on conflicts of interest, its omissions are striking. HALT and CRC advised the commission to add substance to its guidelines by requiring judges to file annual financial disclosure reports and updated recusal lists, which detail their economic interests and the relationship of those investments to the cases over which they preside. The groups called for convenient public access to these reports through the clerk's office in the courthouse where the judge serves. These recommendations follow Kansas City Star and Washington Post investigations that uncovered hundreds of instances in which judges issued court orders while holding stock in a litigating corporation.

The groups also urged the commission to require judges to sign certifications that they have not presided over a case in which they have had a financial conflict of interest. "Just as Congress has recently passed legislation requiring corporate chief executives to certify that their reports to the SEC are accurate, judges should be required to certify that they have not handled matters in which they or their families held a financial interest," stated HALT Associate Counsel Suzanne Mishkin.

Finally, HALT and CRC called for restrictions on judicial junkets, which are expense-paid vacations funded by private foundations and corporations that purport to "educate" judges through one-sided, often politically charged seminars. CRC's report, Nothing for Free, found a remarkable correlation between judicial attendance at these seminars and judicial rulings in cases involving parties and subject matter involved in the seminars.

The ethical questions raised by these practices have led to calls for reform from more than 30 editorial boards and numerous legislators from across the political spectrum. In particular, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) have been outspoken advocates for many of the reforms requested by HALT and CRC.

To read the comments submitted by HALT and CRC to the ABA Joint Commission, click here (PDF format).

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