Federal Judges' Travel Information Slow to Appear, Group Reports

A new requirement that federal judges promptly tell the public about their expense-paid trips has so far produced no disclosures, a judicial ethics watchdog group said Wednesday.

The change took effect Jan. 1, requiring sponsors of trips to report in advance who is paying for judges' travel and lodging at private seminars. The information is supposed to be made available quickly to the public.

Then, within 30 days of the end of each trip, judges must file a report about it. Local court Web sites will have the information. Until this year, judges didn't have to report their expense-paid travel until their annual financial disclosures.

Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, the judicial ethics watchdog group, said he scoured nearly 200 federal court Web sites without finding any reports of travel. Every year since 1992, judges have attended private seminars in the first two months of the year — the period for which reports would already have been filed — Kendall said.

The lack of disclosures could be the result of a decision by the courts to exempt trips for which invitations were issued before Jan. 1. The policy does not mention any exemption, but Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the courts, said, "It is a matter of getting to the real-world implementation of the policy that was passed in September 2006."

Carelli said fewer than 30 courts lack the computer software necessary to post information on judges' trips on their Web sites.

Kendall also found the judicial branch is not posting on its Web site information provided by trip sponsors despite language adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States, a 27-judge body led by Chief Justice John Roberts.

"Upon receipt, the Administrative Office shall promptly post the information on the Judiciary's Web site (www.uscourts.gov) so that it is publicly available and available to judges," reads the policy.

After initially defending the withholding of the information, the courts' administrative office said it had erred and it was changing its reporting system to make the sponsors' reports public soon after they are received. The information has been available only to judges before the trips.

The administrative office released information on 20 private seminars to which sponsors have invited federal judges. The judges' names are not included in the data, except where a judge is an invited speaker.

Judge Danny Boggs of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a director of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., and is on the program for a seminar in July on economics, energy and the law.

The new reporting requirements were intended to increase public confidence in judges' integrity 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.