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Sen. Patrick Leahy, contending a judicial panel has weakened ethics rules for judges who accept corporate-sponsored trips, said Friday he plans to reintroduce legislation to define standards. Leahy, D-Vt., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also said he plans to use the judicial confirmation process, already a contentious area, to raise the profile of the ethics issue. “Gift disclosure rules apply to presidents and Cabinet officials and members of Congress,” Leahy said in a statement. “There’s no good reason why judges in lifetime jobs should not have the same kind of accountability.” Leahy agreed in early 2003 to postpone plans to introduce legislation that would tighten rules for judicial trips to give the judiciary time to regulate its own standards on such trips. He and other lawmakers were responding to news reports that judges were being invited to little-publicized seminars at luxurious resorts paid for by corporations that were involved in litigation where millions of dollars could be at stake. The Committee on Codes of Conduct under the Administrative Office of the Courts wrote revisions in August, but Leahy said they made financial disclosure standards less transparent. Douglas Kendall, executive director of the watchdog organization Community Rights Counsel, complained Thursday that the judiciary had “used this grace period to significantly weaken the ethics rule for judges on whether they may attend luxury judicial seminars.” In a letter to U.S. District Judge Judge William Osteen of North Carolina, chairman of the code of conducts panel, Kendall said the revisions free judges from having to ask the most relevant questions about who pays for trips. Under the rules, he said, a judge could accept a trip to a resort as long as a corporation, which might be litigating a case before the judge, contributed to the host organization rather than paid directly for the judge’s trip. A judge presiding over a case involving a company that sponsored a seminar need consider only whether the company has contributed a “substantial portion of the cost” of the seminar. “Substantial” is not defined, Kendall said. The Administrative Office of the Courts said in a statement that the new advisory opinion was “intended to present a more thorough and thoughtful treatment of the issues” and provided judges with factors to weigh in reaching case-by-case decisions. “In the end, this opinion should assure that judges are less likely to make choices that could appear problematic,” it said. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed.

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