Supreme Ethics Problem?

The following is a transcript of a Jan. 23 "Nightline" story:

Cynthia McFadden: Good evening. I'm Cynthia McFadden. On Capitol Hill tomorrow, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to support the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. And with the court in the spotlight, tonight we have an exclusive investigation. Unlike the Congress, now ensnared in the ballooning lobbying scandal, or even lower court judges, the Supreme Court does not have to abide by any specific ethics code. That's opened the justices to new criticisms about perks and power. ABC's chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross joins us live.

Brian Ross: Cynthia, what some call fact-finding missions, others call junkets. Judges have their own name for them, they call them educational seminars held at fancy resorts, all expenses paid by somebody else.

ABC News
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The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Bachelor Gulch, Colo., is one of the country's top resorts. Famous for its beautiful setting, its fly fishing and its five-star amenities. That's where Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was playing tennis on the afternoon of Sept. 29 last year. But his absence back in Washington did not go unnoticed.

At the White House that same afternoon, John Roberts was being sworn in as the 17th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. An historic occasion attended by every justice of the court but for Scalia.

Scalia's apparent snub of the Chief Justice was one thing. But some legal ethics experts say his presence at the resort raises even larger questions about what critics call judicial junkets.

Stephen Gillers, New York University School of Law: It's unfortunate, of course, that what kept him from the swearing in was an activity that is itself of dubious ethical proprietary.

Ross: Justice Scalia spent three days at the luxury resort. ABC News reporters saw him on the tennis court, heading out for an afternoon of fly fishing, and speaking and socializing with members of the group that paid the expenses for his trip. It was a group whose name Scalia later declined to reveal when reporters asked him why he skipped the swearing in at the White House.

Justice Antonin Scalia: I was out of town with a commitment that I ... that I could not break. And that's what the public information office told you.

Reporter: What was that commitment?

Scalia: It doesn't matter what it was. It was a commitment that I couldn't break.

Ross: The commitment to a conservative activist group call the Federalist Society, which says this was no junket at all but a legal seminar, in which Justice Scalia taught a 10-hour course. According to the invitation, obtained by ABC News, members who attended were told they would get an exclusive and rare opportunity to spend time both socially and intellectually with Scalia. A number of Federalist Society lawyers practice before the Supreme Court.

Gillers: I think Justice Scalia should not have gone on that trip for several reasons.

Ross: Steven Gillers is a law professor at New York University and a recognized scholar on legal ethics.

Gillers: He's using the prestige of his office to ... to advance the interest of a group with a decided political/judicial profile. By having a Supreme Court justice at your group's fairly intimate, very posh event, you're lending the prestige of your office to that group. I mean, that's -- everyone would like that. And that's why he shouldn't have gone.

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