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WASHINGTON – The Judicial Conference of the United States yesterday adopted the first-ever binding nationwide procedures for handling complaints of judicial misconduct. The conference, the policy-making body of the federal judiciary, adopted the new rulesunanimously to end gaps and inconsistencies between circuits in how complaints of judicial wrongdoing are handled. “There were no standards,” said Judge Ralph Winter of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, chairman of the committee that devised the rules and will oversee how they are implemented. At a post-meeting press conference, Judge Winter said the new rules provide a “step-by-step analysis” of how and when complaints of misconduct should be investigated, resolved and made public. “They tell chief judges when they can initiate a proceeding, and when they must,” said Judge Winter, adding that “there has been a great deal of uncertainty” on this point. The rules call for the creation of circuit committees of three or more judges to investigate significant complaints in which there is “a genuine conflict” over what happened. Complaints will be made public only when a judge is sanctioned. Judge Winter also said a mechanism is provided for the first time to enable an investigation of a complaint against a judge in one federal circuit to be transferred to another circuit when the judge’s home circuit perceives a conflict of interest. “I expect there will be more transfers” as a result, he said. The conference’s action marks a major milestone in the judiciary’s efforts to improve its self-regulation, first launched in 2004 by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. At the time, members of Congress were pressuring the judiciary to increase consistency and transparency, some even threatening to pass a law creating an inspector general who would investigate complaints against judges. Chief Justice Rehnquist named a committee headed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to investigate the process as well as specific cases of misconduct. In September 2006, Justice Breyer’s committee reported that some complaints were not investigated fully enough and that the process nationwide was significantly flawed and haphazard. The conference yesterday enacted all of the Breyer committee’s suggested reforms and then some, Judge Winter said. “We went beyond the Breyer committee,” he said. Between 600 and 800 complaints are filed annually against judges, Judge Winter said, and only about one in 100 alleges something that “requires further inquiry.” He added, “Judges always leave half their customers unsatisfied,” prompting some on the losing side to allege judicial misconduct. He said the judicial conference was insistent that the actual merits of a decision – whether it was right or wrong – could never form the basis of a misconduct investigation against the judge who made the decision. But he said an improper motive that led to the decision could be investigated. Thomas Hogan, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and chairman of the Judicial Conference’s executive committee, said he believes the conference has been responsive to Congress in enacting the new rules and making the disciplinary process more accessible on court Web sites and elsewhere. “The whole process has been good for the judiciary,” Judge Hogan said at the news conference in the press room of the U.S. Supreme Court. He acknowledged that “judges hate change more than lawyers,” but said the conference recognized the need for better disciplinary procedures. The next step will be to update the code of judicial conduct, Judge Hogan said. Comment on the new rules. As usual, the conference, which is chaired by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and includes representatives from federal courts and circuits across the country, met behind closed doors yesterday. Asked if anything that occurred at the closed meeting could not have taken place in public, Judge Hogan said, “No, I don’t think so,” though he added that if the meeting were public, the candor of participants would be “hampered greatly.” - Tony Mauro cover the U.S. Supreme Court for ALM, the parent company of the Law Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] .

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