Crackdown Proposed on Judges' Free Trips, Lavish Gifts

Federal judges who receive all-expense paid trips and lavish gifts from activist groups may soon find their ability to participate in such trips, labeled junkets by critics, called educational by defenders, limited. A proposed new amendment requires judges to pay their own way in many cases and sets a monetary limit on the amount of gifts judges can accept.

Often called fact-finding missions or educational seminars, critics say many of these trips are little more than judicial junkets which often cause serious conflicts of interest.

"They take judges to western resorts and they instruct them how and why to strike down environmental laws," said Doug Kendall, the executive director of Community Rights Counsel, a public interest law firm.

"This is an issue of fundamental fairness," said Kendall, whose firm is involved in many environmental cases.

"We file briefs," he said. "Meanwhile, our opponents are flying judges to resorts and dissecting our arguments while fly-fishing with the judges in Yellowstone National Park."

The proposed new rules would not allow judges to accept more than $2,000 reimbursement for a single trip and no more than $20,000 in travel reimbursements or gifts for a single year.

As has previously reported, some of these groups have even invited Supreme Court justices to their events.

In 2006, ABC News reported on one such event held by the conservative activist group, the Federalist Society. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spent three days that fall at the luxurious Ritz-Carlton resort in Bachelor Gulch, Colo.

The Federalist Society said Scalia was there to teach a 10-hour legal seminar, but ABC News producers also saw him on the tennis court, heading out for an afternoon of fly-fishing and socializing with members of the society, which paid the costs of his trip. A number of Federalist Society lawyers practice before the Supreme Court.

Justice Scalia's trip did not violate Supreme Court ethics code because there was no code of ethics for Supreme Court justices. The proposed new gift rules, however, would affect Scalia and the other Supreme Court justices.

The amendment will soon be debated on the Senate floor as part of an addition to a bill that would raise the pay for federal judges.

"It's a simple elegant solution to this problem which has badly stained the reputation of the federal judiciary for the last decade," Kendall said.

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