Half of the 80 active judges who serve on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the federal district and bankruptcy benches in Texas took one or more trips paid for by law schools, think tanks and other groups, according to the judges’ financial disclosure reports for 2011.
The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 requires federal judges to disclose the sources and amounts of their own income, other than their judicial salaries. They also must disclose the sources of their spouses’ non-investment income. And the judges are required to report reimbursements for trips, as well as gifts and debts incurred by themselves, spouses and dependent children.
Asked about the rules for reporting trips, Karen Redmond, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C., responds in an email:
Judges report any payment or other thing of value other than gifts, to cover travel expenses. Excluded from the reporting requirement is travel funded by any government source, personal travel paid by the judge or a family member, quid pro quo travel with a third party, personal hospitality. Travel funded by state or local bar associations, subject-matter bar associations, judicial associations, the Judicial Division of the ABA [American Bar Association] or the National Judicial College is also excluded.
Redmond also notes in her e-mail that Canon 4 of the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges provides that judges “may speak, write, lecture, and teach on both law-related and nonlegal subjects.”
The reports for 2011 show that 12 of 15 judges on the 5th Circuit and 33 of 66 judges on federal district and bankruptcy courts in Texas took trips for which they did not have to pay. The total number of trips taken by the judges was 226. Texas Lawyer contacted all judges who reported eight or more trips.
Judge Jennifer Elrod of the 5th Circuit reported the most trips taken last year. According to Elrod’s report on 2011, she received reimbursement for 17 trips in 2011, up from 11 trips she reported for 2010.
Ten of the trips Elrod reported for 2011 were for teaching at law schools, speaking at continuing legal education seminars or judging moot court competitions. Elrod reported one trip to Austin to meet with the Texas Center for Legal Ethics (TCLE) staff and others on ethics education, as well as four trips — two to Austin, and one each to Dallas and El Paso — for TCLE board meetings. According to the TCLE website, Elrod is a member of the center’s board of trustees. She also reported a TCLE-sponsored trip to Austin to meet with the Texas Supreme Court and a two-day trip to Washington, D.C., to serve as a moderator for a national lawyer convention sponsored by the Federalist Society.
“I believe it is part of my job to help with the education of young lawyers, help with the education of the public and help the Bar with legal ethics,” Elrod says.
Elrod says that her travels do not present a problem in keeping up with her work as a judge.
“I am able to work while I’m on the road and work late at night at home, as well,” she says.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal of the Southern District of Texas in Houston reported 16 trips, the second highest number of trips taken last year. According to Rosenthal’s report, her reimbursed travel included a trip July 1-25, 2011, to Lyon, France, where she served as a teacher for the Louisiana State University Foundation, and a trip Dec. 5-11, 2011, to The Hague, where she was a panelist for an event sponsored by Stanford Law School/University of Oxford.
Rosenthal did not return two telephone calls seeking comment.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court Chief Judge Barbara Houser of the Northern District in Dallas traveled to meetings and conferences on the East Coast and the West Coast in 2011, reporting 13 trips for the year. According to Houser’s report, one of the trips was to Columbia, S.C., for three days in June 2011 to attend the wedding of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges’ executive director.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Richard S. Schmidt of the Southern District in Corpus Christi reported 11 trips in 2011, including six trips to participate in bankruptcy courses or forums. Schmidt says his responsibilities as vice president in charge of education for the State Bar of Texas Bankruptcy Section necessitated some of his travel.
“Continuing legal education is an absolute necessity, both for the community and the lawyers involved,” he says. “That’s especially true in the area of bankruptcy because of frequent changes in the law and changes in the way businesses do business.”
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of the Western District of Texas, Austin Division, reported nine trips in 2011.
Yeakel says, “I believe judges ought to get out more, not less. We have a responsibility to get out in front of the public and lawyers.”
He says it is important for judges to hear what people are talking about and to let the public hear judges’ concerns.
Three of the trips Yeakel took in 2011 were to attend meetings of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws’ Committee on Style. He says he is a member of the NCCUSL.
Yeakel also says that he had no trouble performing his judicial duties in a timely manner while making the trips.
“You organize around it [a trip],” Yeakel says. About the trips he reported for 2011, he says, “None of those were short-notice trips. . . . If you have notice, you can schedule around trips.”
U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis of the Northern District of Texas in Dallas also reported reimbursements for nine trips, including six to Abilene to handle the criminal docket there. Solis handles about half of the criminal docket in Abilene, says Jane Amerson, the judge’s courtroom deputy.
Karen Mitchell, clerk of the court for the Northern District, says case-related travel is not supposed to be included on the financial disclosure reports.
The other three trips that Solis reported were for State Bar of Texas board of directors meetings. Solis served as the federal judiciary’s liaison to the board in 2011, according to the minutes of the board’s April 29, 2011, meeting posted online.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Harlin “Cooter” Hale of the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division, reported eight trips in 2011, including five for events at which he was a speaker. One of Hale’s speaking engagements was for a bankruptcy seminar sponsored by Louisiana State University School of Law on Oct. 21-22, 2011, in Baton Rouge.
“I’m a LSU grad,” Hale says. “If they invite me on a weekend LSU plays in town, I almost always go.”
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald B. King of the Western District in San Antonio also reported eight trips in 2011, all to speak at CLE seminars. One of King’s trips took him to Dublin, Ireland, in March 2011 to serve as a panelist at a seminar sponsored by the State Bar of Texas Bankruptcy Section.
“It’s a real seminar,” King says. “It’s not just a boondoggle.”
Judge Carolyn Dineen King, another member of the 5th Circuit, reported eight trips in 2011 but says it was unusual for her to travel that much. King’s report shows she made five trips for American Law Institute meetings. Those five trips were necessary, King says, because she serves as treasurer of the ALI and also is on its council.
King says her two-day trip to San Antonio in June 2011 for a speaking engagement marked the first time she had attended the State Bar of Texas annual meeting. She says a friend invited her to speak, and she felt that she could not turn him down.
But King says, “Generally speaking, I don’t accept invitations to speak, because I don’t have time. It’s that simple.”
Two other active judges reported reimbursements for eight trips each.
U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn of the Northern District in Dallas reported making six trips related to American Bar Association meetings and seminars.
“I am a very active member of ABA,” Lynn says.
Lynn also reported reimbursements for a trip to San Diego, Calif., to be a panelist for a forum sponsored by the University of San Diego and a trip to Austin to be a panelist for an appellate course sponsored by the University of Texas.
“In terms of speaking engagements, I turn down many of those,” Lynn says. “My primary responsibility is my judicial work, but I think we as judges have a responsibility to speak about what we do.”
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Marvin P. Isgur of the Southern District of Texas in Houston also reported receiving reimbursements for eight trips but did not return a telephone call for comment.
Houser also reported receiving two cash gifts of $12,500 each from Glenn and Veronica Cox. Her report did not provide any explanation about the gifts, and Houser did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Northwestern University School of Law professor Steven Lubet, co-author of the book, “Judicial Conduct and Ethics,” says that the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges addresses judges’ acceptance of gifts.
“The rule basically is [a judge] can’t receive gifts from anybody who has business before the courts or whose interests might be affected by a decision,” Lubet says.
An additional limitation, he says, is that a judge may not accept a gift “if a reasonable person would believe it was being offered in return for being influenced in the performance of an official act.”