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
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
It is time for the judiciary to take
these long overdue steps needed to
get its house in order.