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Judges’ Travel Disclosures Would See More Sunlight Under Bill

Oct. 17, 2019, 8:01 PM

A bill with bipartisan support introduced in the Senate and House would require U.S. Supreme Court justices and federal judges to reveal more about travel-related gifts they receive.

The Judicial Travel Accountability Act is the latest call for greater transparency in the federal judiciary. Transparency advocates have also campaigned for cameras in the courtroom, and the federal judiciary has implemented workplace misconduct reforms in the past year that increase transparency.

The bill would amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to expand the scope of financial disclosure requirements.

“Supreme Court justices and federal judges enjoy lifetime appointments and tremendous power to shape Americans’ lives,” Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who introduced the bill in the Senate, said in a statement.

“With that power comes invitations from outside groups and individuals, many of whom are active litigants before federal courts,” he said.

“To avoid conflicts of interest, the American people ought to know what hospitality, travel, and other emoluments justices and judges receive,” Whitehouse said.

Supreme Court watchdog and Executive Director of Fix the Court Gabe Roth said in a statement that members of the federal judiciary take thousands of trips annually “often to exotic locales and resorts, with partisan interest groups, well-connected political donors or federal court litigants often footing the bill.”

The Ethics in Government Act requires that judges’ disclosures include only the identity of the source and a brief description of reimbursements over $390. But judges don’t have to identify the dollar value of the reimbursement, and are exempted entirely from reporting any gifts in the form of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality,” Whitehouse said in a news release.

The Judicial Travel Accountability Act would require “judicial officers’" financial disclosure statements to include the dollar amount of transportation, lodging, and meal expense reimbursements and gifts, as well as a detailed description of any meetings and events attended.

The bill calls for disclosures to be filed within 15 days of a trip and to be made available on a public website. The Supreme Court doesn’t post its financial disclosures online and they are made available only once a year.

“Full transparency is critical for ensuring public confidence in our system of justice,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who introduced the bill in the House. “Supreme Court justices and federal judges should always be held to the highest ethical standards,” Cicilline said in a statement. “As Republicans like Mitch McConnell continue working with wealthy special interests to change the face of the federal judiciary, it’s absolutely crucial that we pass this bill now.”

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Representatives Ben Cline (R-Va.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) joined Whitehouse and Cicilline in introducing the bill in both chambers of Congress.

A number of the co-sponsors are members of the Senate or House judiciary committees.

There was no bill number assigned as of time of publication.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com