Federal Judges Agree on Greater Travel Disclosures

Federal judges decided Tuesday to require faster and fuller disclosure of their expense-paid trips, a response to criticism that the travel could undermine the public's faith in an impartial judiciary.

The nation's 2,200 federal judges also will have to use computer software that is intended to make it easier for them to identify and step aside from cases in which they have a financial conflict.

The changes were made by the Judicial Conference of the United States, a 27-judge body led by Chief Justice John Roberts that met at the Supreme Court.

Roberts also released a report from a committee headed by Justice Stephen Breyer that found problems in the way judges have handled high-profile complaints against their colleagues. Mistakes in these matters "might discourage people with legitimate complaints from filing them," Breyer said in a briefing for reporters in which he was joined by Roberts.

The work represents an aggressive effort by the Roberts-led federal judiciary to demonstrate its responsiveness to public criticism and ward off proposals in Congress to clamp down on judicial ethics through a travel ban or creation of an ethics watchdog for the court.

"I'd hope they'd let us work on our situations, as they come up, ourselves," said Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of U.S. District Court in Washington, the chairman of the Judicial Conference's executive committee.

Under the new trips policy, sponsors must reveal in advance who is paying for a judge's travel to private seminars. The information is to be posted on the judicial branch's Web site.

Judges may not accept travel from sponsors who refuse to disclose the information.

Then, within 30 days of the end of the program, judges must file a report about the trip. Local court Web sites will have the information.

Until now, judges have had to report their expense-paid travel in their annual financial disclosures.

The new rules will not apply to the Supreme Court, which has no written ethics rules and is not covered by the Judicial Conference.

The attention to judges' travel has increased in recent years with reports in 2004 that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went duck hunting with Vice President Dick Cheney as the court was considering Cheney's appeal in a records secrecy case. Scalia refused to step down from hearing the case.

A liberal-leaning environmental organization, the Community Rights Counsel, also has produced records showing that cigarette-makers and oil companies gave money to two conservative groups that host seminars for judges.

The groups, the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., and the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University in Virginia, have said that corporate money they receive is not linked to the seminars.

Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, said the new travel policy sends "an unmistakable message to judges that they need to be careful, that they need to think long and hard before attending a junket."

Computer software for identifying financial conflicts has been around for years, but Hogan said that judges had found it cumbersome. A new version is easier to use, he said.

Judges, including Supreme Court justices, are required by law to stay out of cases in which they have a financial stake. Members of the high court, however, decide for themselves when to recuse with no oversight.

The conflict issue arose during Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings. Alito, then a judge on the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, failed to disqualify himself from participating in a Vanguard case in 2002 despite having investments in Vanguard mutual funds.

Alito and his backers offered differing reasons for his inaction, including a computer glitch in conflict-checking software.