Judges Should Police
Themselves - New York Times
Published: May 18, 2006
Congress is considering a bill to establish an inspector general who would have
the power to investigate federal judges. It's not surprising that lawmakers
don't have faith in the judiciary's ability to police its own ethics. But
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has called the idea "scary," and she is right
because an inquisitor of this kind would pose a threat to the independence of
the judiciary. The best way to deal with the underlying problem of judges'
behavior, and to keep Congress from intruding on their autonomy, is for judges
to finally get serious about holding themselves to high ethical standards.
Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, and Senator
Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican, have introduced legislation to create the
judicial inspector general's post, which would carry broad power to subpoena
judicial records and employees.
The sponsors say their goal is to ensure that judges comply with ethics laws,
and to root out fraud and the waste of tax dollars.
Mr. Sensenbrenner says the inspector general would not be authorized to
investigate particular rulings or sentencing decisions. There is a real danger,
though, of just that happening. The bills contain sweeping language authorizing
investigations into "matters pertaining to the judicial branch." And there is
nothing to prevent an inspector general from opening an investigation into why a
judge handed down a particular decision or sentence.
Even if the bills were improved by including language that expressly limited the
inspector general to examining ethical issues, the danger would remain that an
inspector general would go after judges to punish them for particular opinions.
The Republican majority in Congress has frequently denounced judges' rulings and
even threatened retribution.
Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, has offered a better bill, which
would crack down on judicial junkets without interfering with judicial autonomy.
But the real answer is that the Judicial Conference, the administrative body of
the federal courts, and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. should be doing a lot
more on ethics.
Federal judges go on an extraordinary number of junkets paid for by corporations
and organizations with an interest in their rulings.
According to a study by the Community Rights Counsel, a nonprofit
public-interest law firm, federal judges have gone on more than 1,000 junkets in
the last 15 years, sometimes with their spouses and often at lavish resorts.
Judges refuse even to report the trips honestly, much less restrain themselves
The judiciary has also been lax about uncovering financial conflicts in judges'
rulings. And it has refused to crack down on judges who fail to obey the law by
taking themselves off cases in which they hold financial interests.
It is time for the judiciary to take these long overdue steps needed to get its
house in order.