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, records show.
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 committee.
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 guidance before."