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Responding to complaints about judicial junkets and conflicts of interest, the Judicial Conference on Tuesday enacted new rules to force judges to use conflict-checking software and to promptly disclose their participation in privately sponsored seminars for which they are reimbursed. Separately, a committee headed by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer issued a report recommending modest changes in how federal courts handle ethical complaints that members of the public file against judges. Among the recommendations is what Breyer described as a “Dutch uncle approach,” whereby judges would seek advice on handling certain complaints from judges of another circuit to avoid “home court” bias. Together, Tuesday’s actions represent a major shift toward accountability � or at least transparency � from segments of a branch of government that has often resisted both. Judges also hoped to defuse pressure from Congress, primarily in the person of House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who has proposed creating an inspector general’s office to oversee the judiciary’s handling of ethical complaints. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed the Breyer Committee in 2004, mainly in response to congressional complaints. “Issuance of the two policies and the Breyer Committee report are responsive to these concerns,” says University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. “If the judiciary does not police itself, Congress may well attempt to do so in ways that judges may find troubling.” Tuesday’s focus on judicial ethics comes on the eve of the Sept. 21 hearings by the House Judiciary Committee that could lead to the impeachment of California federal trial Judge Manuel Real, which would be the first judicial impeachment since 1989. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., in a rare impromptu press conference at the Court, applauded both of Tuesday’s moves and urged federal judges to take “prompt action.” Significantly, none of what happened Tuesday affects the Supreme Court itself. The Judicial Conference never sets policy for the high court, and Breyer, speaking at the same press conference, said the scope of his committee’s study of disciplinary procedures did not include the Supreme Court. As a result, it appears the justices have still not taken action on a 1993 recommendation by a blue-ribbon government commission that the Court consider establishing procedures for handling complaints against its own members. Breyer said his committee concluded that, overall, the handling of ethical complaints by lower federal courts “does not suggest a serious problem,” but a better job needs to be done in some instances, especially in the handling of complex complaints that receive media attention. The Judicial Conference actions could have the most immediate impact on privately sponsored seminars other than those hosted by bar associations and judicial education groups. Under the new rules, judges will be barred from accepting reimbursement for seminars hosted by organizations that do not publicly disclose their funding sources, speakers’ names, and other information. Once they attend, judges will have to publicly disclose their attendance on their court’s Web site within 30 days. “The new junket rules are a pretty dramatic change of course for the judiciary, and they send a clear statement to judges that they should think twice before attending junkets,” Doug Kendall of the Community Rights Counsel said Tuesday. Kendall’s group has repeatedly criticized judges for attending seminars funded by companies with an interest in influencing how judges handle economic and environmental cases. One of the targets of Kendall’s criticism has been the Montana-based Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE), which has hosted hundreds of federal judges in the past 15 years. It asserts that none of the funding for its judicial seminars comes from any corporate entity or any foundation that participates in federal litigation. “I’ve seen the requirements, and everything they ask for, we’ve been doing voluntarily,” says FREE Executive Vice President Pete Geddes. “FREE is happy to do anything it can to reassure the public about the integrity and independence of the judiciary.” The conference’s action on conflict-checking software reflects the concern that many judges don’t think it works well and have not put it to use. Now they will have to, said D.C. District Court Chief Judge Thomas Hogan, head of the conference’s executive committee. Hogan told reporters his software reminds him of a potential conflict of interest every time a party named Johnson appears before him. That, he said with a laugh, is because he and his wife own stock in the medical company Johnson & Johnson. Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected]

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