U.S. Judiciary Agrees to Greater Transparency

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Federal judges decide to require faster and fuller disclosure of their expense-paid trips. They will also start using computer software designed to help them avoid cases in which they have a financial conflict. Those were some of the changes announced by the Judicial Conference of the United States on Tuesday.


The Federal Judiciary took a variety of steps yesterday to combat complaints of judicial misconduct. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Two years ago, then Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed a special committed, headed by Justice Stephen Breyer, to examine how a 1980 law, aimed at dealing with allegations of judicial misconduct, is working.

Yesterday, the new Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justice Breyer, announced the results of that two-year study. The conclusion was that, overall, the current self-policing system works well, but not in the relatively few high visibility cases.

Under the 1980 judicial misconduct and disability law, allegations of misconduct are filed with the chief judge of each circuit, and he or she is to order a further investigation - unless the allegation is frivolous. Typically there are about 700 such allegations each year. Not a large number, given that the federal courts handle some two million plus cases each year.

The Breyer committee examined about a third of these cases, over a three-year period, to see if they were appropriately handled. The conclusion was that all but 2 or 3 percent were properly handled. The problem occurred in the high visibility cases. Seventeen were identified over a five-year period. In five of those cases, the committee concluded that further investigation was warranted and had not been taken. That's an error rate of 30 percent.

That, stressed Justice Breyer, did not mean that the judge in question was guilty of misconduct, but that the chief judge did not treat the charge with sufficient seriousness.

Among his committee's recommendations is that chief judges in high profile cases consider transferring them to other circuits, to deflect charges of a buddy system.

Also, yesterday, the Judicial Conference, the policy making body for all federal judges - except Supreme Court Justices - adopted new conflict of interest rules. From now on, all federal judges will be required to use new computer software that is in all federal courts - software that's proved good at detecting any financial conflicts between cases and a judge's personal investments.

The Judicial Conference also surprised many by tightening the rules on judges' expense-paid attendance at private seminars, seminars that usually take place in pleasant resorts. The judges will now be required to publicly report such attendance within 30 days. More importantly, judges will be barred from attending seminars put on by private organizations, unless those organizations publicly disclose all donors.

The Community Rights Council, a liberal public interest group, has documented a thousand just junkets by federal judges over the last 15 years, often funded by corporations or organizations with vested interests in litigation.

Douglas Kendall, director of the council, called the new rules an important signal to judges to be careful in attending these seminars.

It remains to be seen whether any or all of this will be enough to stave off congressional measures to make judges subject to outside discipline instead of leaving the matter to the judges themselves. This week, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on whether to impeach a federal judge, whom his fellow judges have been slow to investigate.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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