*** Federal Judges Oppose Judicial Influence Peddling
J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles - September 28, 2000
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A Threat to Judicial Ethics
t a moment when the federal judiciary needs to tighten its ethical prohibitions on accepting money or gifts from private interests bent on influencing judicial thinking, Chief Justice William Rehnquist has been quietly collaborating with Senate Republicans to move in the opposite direction. With Justice Rehnquist's approval, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, tucked a provision into a spending bill in July that would lift the 11-year-old ban on judges' collecting honorariums for appearances. The ban was imposed in 1989 to protect the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system against outside influence.
It is not surprising that Mr. McConnell, the leading opponent of reforming the nation's corrupt campaign financing system, would be blind to the dangers of widening the opportunities for monied interests to buy favor with judges. But Chief Justice Rehnquist should know better than to endorse Mr. McConnell's scheme to weaken judicial ethics radically. The fact that in today's boisterous economy first-year legal associates in top law firms can make as much as a federal judge is no excuse to return to corruptive salary supplements from private interests. Nor is the failure of Congress to meet its commitment to adjust judicial salaries annually for inflation.
Indeed, as Abner Mikva, the former White House counsel and federal appellate judge, noted in a recent Op-Ed piece in The Times, the fairness and impartiality of the federal judiciary are already being seriously undermined by allowing federal judges to accept free vacations at posh resorts from private interests bent on influencing their future decisions. A valuable new report from the Community Rights Counsel, an environmental group, finds that between 1992 and 1998 some 230 federal judges — more than a quarter of the federal judiciary — traveled to resort locations at the expense of private interests with a stake in federal litigation. Once there, they attended legal seminars making the case for curbing federal regulatory authority in favor of a free-market approach to matters like protecting the environment.
These junkets seem to be having an impact on judicial decision-making. Ten of the past decade's most significant rulings cutting back on environmental protections, according to the study, were written by judges who attended these seminars, often while the cases were pending in court.
The need for reform was underscored a week ago when a federal district judge in Manhattan, Jed Rakoff, denied a motion to recuse himself from further involvement in a lawsuit seeking damages from Texaco for harming the rain forest in Ecuador. Lawyers for the plaintiffs — indigenous people who live in the rain forest — filed the recusal motion upon learning of Judge Rakoff's ill-advised participation in an expenses-paid seminar on environmental issues that had been held at a Montana ranch by a foundation receiving sizable donations from Texaco. One of the lecturers was Alfred DeCrane Jr., the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Texaco, who ran the company when it operated in Ecuador. In his ruling, Judge Rakoff argued that his acceptance of the travel gift was within existing rules, a hair-splitting explanation that does not remove qualms about his judgment or impartiality.
Federal judges should have the ethical compass to resist these one-sided "educational" seminars. But in the absence of judicial self-restraint, Chief Justice Rehnquist should be leading the United States Judicial Conference, the governing body for all federal judges, to crack down on such junkets, not nudging Congress to create new avenues for influence-peddling.
If judicial pay is deemed too low, Congress needs to address that problem directly, by granting judges a salary increase paid for with public funds. Similarly, if there is a genuine need for judges to attend educational seminars, Congress ought to provide public funds for that purpose, too. But the effort to lift the ban on honorariums for judges, which was brought to light yesterday by The Washington Post, should be rejected, either by Congress or by a presidential veto.
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