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Rules on gifts for judges are being overhauled for the first time in 15 years, with a commission looking at ways to cut down on the trinkets, expense-paid trips and other freebies given to members of the bench. Some on the American Bar Association panel are concerned about the vagueness of the current rules, such as allowing judges to accept any “ordinary social hospitality.” The commission’s work is garnering more attention since Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia took a hunting vacation with Vice President Dick Cheney early this year while the court was considering Cheney’s appeal in a records secrecy case. Scalia refused to step down from hearing the case, and was battered by newspapers questioning his impartiality and judges’ power. “With all the controversy with Justice Scalia’s hunting trip, it’s come to the forefront that the rules with respect to gifts and travel really aren’t all that clear,” said Jan Baran, a Washington, D.C., attorney and commission member. The 400,000-member ABA, the nation’s largest lawyers’ group, writes ethics rules that states and federal courts generally adopt, with some changes. The 11-member commission, which includes some judges, is working this week on a proposal that should be released next week for public comment. The final plan, to be voted on next summer by the ABA, eventually could affect thousands of judges. The nine Supreme Court justices have no written ethics rules, but some members of the court have informally agreed to follow the ethics code. The current rules do not require judges, on their own, to disclose when they accept gifts. The commission may change that. States have various reporting requirements. A law requires federal judges to file yearly reports, but those reports lack important details, like the value of paid trips. Also, judges can ask a judicial committee to keep parts of their reports private. Judges can accept gifts from friends for special occasions and free travel to law-related events. “This is probably the best chance there will ever be for internal reform by the judiciary” on trip-taking because of the recent attention to judges’ ethics, said Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, a public interest law firm. “If the commission says junkets are unacceptable, the judiciary will have to accept this conclusion,” Kendall said. He supports a flat gift limit, perhaps $500 for each paid trip, to prevent companies from using seminars for judicial lobbying. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has acknowledged concerns about judges’ ethics. Earlier this year he named a committee to consider whether judges have been lax in policing themselves. Federal judges can be punished for engaging in “conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts.” Some congressional leaders contend the law is not being enforced. Rehnquist himself has been the focus of some ethical criticism. Watchdog groups complained when a utility company flew Rehnquist on its corporate jet to Ohio in May to speak at the dedication of the state Supreme Court’s new building. Ohio Citizen Action questioned the trip because of a pending lawsuit by the government claiming the utility, American Electric Power, violated the clean air laws. The case could eventually reach the Supreme Court. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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