Lawyers worried by bill to police judges
A bill before Congress that would establish an independent watchdog to oversee the federal judiciary is "dangerous and ill-advised" and could undermine the courts' impartiality, the head of the nation's largest lawyers group said yesterday.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in April proposed setting up such a body to police judges' acceptance of free trips or their possible financial interests with groups that could appear before them in court.
Sensenbrenner said paid trips undermine the public's perception of the fairness of the judiciary.
But Michael Greco, American Bar Association president, said at a press conference during his group's national convention in Honolulu that the bill would give the legislative branch too much power.
"These bills create a very real danger that members of Congress who are unhappy with a particular judicial decision or with the actions of a particular court would attempt to use an inspector general to intimidate those judges," Greco said.
He said the ABA's policymaking body, which is meeting at the convention, would consider adopting a resolution opposing an inspector general.
Greco said Congress already has the power to approve judicial budgets and impeach judges who violate their oaths of office. He said the judiciary's ethical codes and internal disciplinary systems suffice to keep judges honest.
The group's resolution comes a few months after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told an ABA gathering in May that the Republican proposal was a "really scary idea," adding "the judiciary is under assault in a way that I haven't seen before."
When Greco asked what lawyers could do, Ginsburg said attorneys could speak up. Judges, she said, cannot lobby on their own behalf.
Sensenbrenner and Grassley have argued that recently disclosed ethics violations show that the judiciary cannot be trusted to police itself.
The Community Rights Counsel, a public-interest law firm that represents environmental interests, said in an April report that the number of trips taken by federal judges and paid for by interest groups has increased by about 25 percent since the 1990s.
The ABA meeting in Hawaii lasts through Tuesday.