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Judging the judges

October 09, 2006

IN A VARIATION ON THE BIBLICAL exhortation "Physician, heal thyself," critics of ethical lapses in the federal judiciary have long been saying, "Judges, judge yourselves." The Judicial Conference of the United States has done just that with welcome new rules to raise ethical standards and make it easier for citizens to monitor judges' compliance with them.

Useful in themselves, the initiatives also should discourage critics of the federal judiciary in Congress from encroaching further on the independence of a co-equal branch of government that often antagonizes lawmakers with its rulings.

The first initiative is designed to make it harder for judges to inadvertently sit on cases in which their impartiality might be questioned. The conference will require federal courts to use computer software that sifts through cases in search of overlap between the parties and judges' financial holdings.

The second initiative addresses a malodorous practice in which federal judges attend seminars -- some of them funded indirectly by corporate interests -- at which they have the opportunity not only to bone up on trends in law and economics but also to swim, play golf, ride horses and otherwise frolic with captains of industries who have a lot at stake before courts. The Community Rights Counsel, an environmental watchdog group, has documented hundreds of such "judicial junkets."

New rules announced by the Judicial Conference will not do away with judges' participation in educational programs but will impose new disclosure requirements. Except for those offered by bar or judicial organizations, seminars that reimburse judges for more than $305 in expenses (greens fees included, presumably) must disclose sources of financial support. Information about which judges participated in which events will be available on the Internet.

Judges who take part in these programs are adamant that they aren't swayed in their rulings by the hosts' hospitality. But what matters is how the public might perceive the preferential access that flows from these junkets and the motivation -- presumably not just charity -- of those footing the bill.

Welcome as they are in themselves, the new rules should also temper a movement in Congress to create an inspector general for the judiciary, an innovation that would needlessly entangle the legislative branch in the supervision of judges. It's easier for the judiciary to fend off encroachments from other branches when it's willing to judge -- and heal -- itself.

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