Ethics Lapses by Federal Judges Persist, Review Finds

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A number of federal judges have violated ethics rules in recent years by presiding over lawsuits while having a financial conflict. Others have failed to disclose that they traveled to resorts on expense-paid trips.

Interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Post identified about a dozen such ethical lapses in recent years.

One category of problems involves stock holdings. In 2003, records show, federal appeals court judges issued rulings in at least seven lawsuits while they or their spouses owned stock in a company involved in the case or had other financial ties to a party in the disputes. The problem stock holdings ranged in value from a few thousand dollars to as much as $50,000. Federal law requires that judges remove themselves from any case in which they know they have any financial interest.

A second set of ethical lapses involves seminars held at resorts by a Montana-based group, the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE).

On at least six occasions from 2002 to 2004, federal judges accepted air travel, food and lodging from the libertarian foundation but did not list the gifts on their annual disclosure reports, as required by law, documents and interviews show. The seminars dealt with economics and the environment, but also offered the judges time for fishing, hiking and horseback riding.

The review found that some judges were repeat offenders: Previous investigations by The Post identified nearly identical ethical lapses involving two of the judges.

It is impossible to determine just how frequently judges violate ethics laws because public records are limited. A 1998 law allows judges to black out some or all information on disclosure reports before releasing them to the public. Also, many organizations keep confidential the names of judges who accept expense-paid trips, frustrating attempts to verify disclosure reports.

Ethics experts expressed surprise that such transgressions persist because court authorities reacted to earlier revelations of ethical violations with promises of reform.

"It seems to be a very blatant violation of the code of judicial ethics," said Jeffrey M. Shaman, a judicial ethicist at DePaul University.

Stephen Gillers, a specialist in legal ethics at New York University, said the study "goes to the heart of what a judge is understood to be."

"Congress says you cannot sit [on a case] if you or your spouse owns even one share" of stock, Gillers said. "It's the law, and judges have to obey it."

The findings show that new laws are needed to prevent abuse, said Douglas T. Kendall, executive director of Community Rights Counsel, a nonprofit Washington law firm that supplied The Post with documents outlining the problems.

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