Federal Judges should reject free trips to hear corporate agendas
Steve at Troubled Times links to this article in the Washington Post about federal judges getting all expense paid trips to hear seminars paid for by those with a pro-coroprate bent.
Steve says this has got to violate judicial ethics, though he was not able to research further to determine if this is true. While Senator Leahy has introduced a new bill on this subject, called "The Fair and Independent Judiciary Act," I believe the current federal judicial code of conduct is sufficient to say the judges who have taken these expense paid trips have likely violated this conduct code.
Canon 5 of the code of conduct states in pertinent part:
(1) A judge should refrain from financial and business dealings that tend to reflect adversely on the judge's impartiality, interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties, exploit the judicial position, or involve the judge in frequent transactions with lawyers or other persons likely to come before the court on which the judge serves.
(4) A judge should not solicit or accept anything of value from anyone seeking official action from or doing business with the court or other entity served by the judge, or from anyone whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of official duties; except that a judge may accept a gift as permitted by the Judicial Conference gift regulations."
The commentary to the Canon 5 warn judges to carefully weigh free trips to groups that may be funded by those who would likely be parties before them:
Canon 5B(1). The changing nature of some organizations and of their relationship to the law makes it necessary for a judge regularly to reexamine the activities of each organization with which the judge is affiliated to determine if it is proper for the judge to continue the judge's relationship with it. For example, in many jurisdictions charitable hospitals are now more frequently in court than in the past. Similarly, the boards of some legal aid organizations now make policy decisions that may have political significance or imply commitment to causes that may come before the courts for adjudication.
Canon 5C. Canon 3 requires a judge to disqualify in any proceeding in which the judge has a financial interest, however small; Canon 5 requires a judge to refrain from engaging in business and from financial activities that might interfere with the impartial performance of the judge's judicial duties; Canon 6 requires a judge to report all compensation received for activities outside the judicial office. A judge has the rights of an ordinary citizen with respect to financial affairs, except for limitations required to safeguard the proper performance of the judge's duties...
Canon 5C(4). Reimbursement or direct payment of travel expenses may be a gift and, if so, its acceptance is governed by Canons 5C(4) and (5). A judge or employee may receive as a gift travel expense reimbursement including the cost of transportation, lodging, and meals, for the judge and a relative incident to the judge's attendance at a bar-related function or at an activity devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice."
This last italicized portion would normally be enough to give the judges the right to attend these seminars, but the first italicized language is designed to require judges to exercise care in choosing when to accept such a free trip.
What particularly concerns me is that federal judges make approximately $170,000 a year. They also receive generous benefits. Further, judges have little expenses compared to the many non-employee lawyers who don't make that much money--and those non-employee lawyers pay for rent, malpractice insurance, books or internet access, support staff. Plus, those lawyers have to pay for their own continuing education.* Is it really too much for judges to pay for seminars for the improvement of law or continuing education instead of receiving a free trip to the mountains or the beach to attend a corporate funded seminar (and deduct it from their taxes as would a lawyer who paid for such a seminar)?
* Disclosure alert: I am an employee at a relatively small law office who receives salary and benefits the way a judge would. I don't pay for rent, overhead and the owner of our law office reimburses us for continuing education seminars (though circumscribed and subject to prior approval). I should add, though, that the employment benefits the federal judges receive are superior to mine and most other employee lawyers in terms of medical insurance reimbursement, number of sick and vacation days, and pensions/401ks, etc. Plus, they can't get fired unless they are found to have been blatantly corrupt--and even then, they can still end up in Congress (Well, at least in Florida!).