Trading Cash For Junkets At The Federal Courthouse

This Washington Post editorial addresses the heavily supported issue of raising the pay of federal judges.  For those who haven’t followed this too closely, perhaps because it had little consequence on their pocketbook, this is the basic idea:

Under the Senate bill, which calls for 29 percent raises, trial judges’ salaries would increase to $218,000; appeals judges would earn $231,100; Supreme Court associate justices, $267,900; and the chief justice, $279,900. Judges would continue to enjoy extraordinarily generous pensions, and they would be entitled to automatic annual cost-of-living raises. Similar legislation has been approved by the House Judiciary Committee.

While a 29% raise seems pretty generous, it has to be viewed in context.   This fact sheet purports to show how real income for the federal judiciary has fared over the years.  Granted, it contains some dubious claims, but the general point is well taken:  Judges are no less worthy of being able to support themselves than anyone else, and it is unbecoming to compensate federal judges at a level roughly equivalent to a first year Biglaw associates (before bonus).

But Congress, being Congress, can’t stop itself from demanding a giveback.  There’s no free lunch in the Senate.

The biggest hit comes in the form of limits to the amount of outside income judges may earn and restrictions on reimbursements for educational seminars. Under the Senate bill, judges can be reimbursed for expenses related to a seminar “a significant purpose of which is the education” of judges if the event is sponsored by bar associations, judicial associations or the judicial division of the American Bar Association. The purpose of this amendment is to stop judges from accepting thousands of dollars worth of transportation, lodging and food from interest groups that hold “seminars” to push their legal and ideological agendas to a captive audience.

While proponents of junkets speak to judges’ reimbursement for those “pure” trips, to the ABA conferences and law school moot court competitions, most people give little thought to the “dirty” junkets where the judges’ “expenses” are paid by interest groups or corporations.

Clearly, there is a vast difference between a judge (or a justice) accepting reimbursement for a lecture at HLS and a “conference” in Anguilla on the merits of private-purpose eminent domain. 

The move to prohibit these junkets is long overdue, but it may have unintended consequences. Judges may accept no more than a $2,000 reimbursement per event or $20,000 annually for attending approved educational seminars, speaking engagements, or teaching opportunities. As the Judicial Conference of the United States noted in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, such caps could “severely and unnecessarily restrict judges from traveling to law schools for lectures, conferences and moot courts.”

It strikes me that there is no reason to limit reimbursement at all, provided the purpose are “pure”.  On the other hand, I fail to understand why any member of the federal judiciary should be permitted to accept “reimbursement” in any amount from any interest group or corporation.  If the purpose of the junket conflicts with their duty to remain neutral, then there is no amount of money that appropriately limits this inherent violation of their oath. 

The Washington Post concludes that Congress should increase the caps for appropriate junkets, as opposed to inappropriate ones.  This strikes me as simply wrong.  Congress should impose no cap for appropriate junkets, and tolerate no inappropriate ones.  It is not acceptable that federal judges be just a little bit dirty.

3 thoughts on “Trading Cash For Junkets At The Federal Courthouse

  1. Gregory Conen

    But how do you tell the “pure” and the “impure”? Some are clearly OK (if the bar association is dirty, then you’re probably screwed anyway), some are fairly clearly not (private corporations).

    But what about universities? groups within universities? Nonprofits? What if a university or nonprofit accepts money from a corporation?

    The rule is, I think, to side step the gray areas by saying “$2000 is reimbursement, $200,000 is a bribe.”

  2. SHG

    I think you may be missing half the point on this one, Gregory.  Money is only part of the problem.  The other part is whether judges have any business attending partisan affairs.  Should, for example, the NRA have a Supreme Court justice at its “conference” on the Second Amendment?  These are people whose duty it is to remain neutral.  They have no business becoming embroiled in partisan affairs, no matter how much the reimbursement may be.  The appearance of impropriety taints them, no matter how much money is involved.

    Nor is this similar to a university or nonprofit taking corporate money.  They are not charged with the legal and ethical duty of neutrality.  Judges are sworn to it.  I suspect we are fully capable of creating appropriate rules, and the judges are capable of adhering to them.  If the only way we can distinguish propriety for judges is by dollar amount, then what legitimacy can we expect from their rulings?

  3. Gregory Conen

    What you’re suggesting, then, far more radical: that judges be forbidden from attending certain classes of events.

    Clearly, these sorts of things are already in place for a very limited set of circumstances, ex parte communication and the like.

    For something that extreme, I’m not so sure we can come up with a good set of rules. As you note, more or less the only body with the oath of neutrality is the judiciary. Even the American Bar Association has that whole issue over affirmative action. Are there any conferences that judges can attend, then?

    Once judges are allowed to attend some conferences, undue influence becomes an issue, and that’s where the reimbursement limit comes in. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with a judge being “reimbursed” big money by the ABA as a case relating to military recruitment and “don’t ask don’t tell” was pending, given their policy:

    “A law school shall communicate to every employer to whom it furnishes assistance and facilities for interviewing and other placement functions the school’s firm expectation that the employer will observe the principles of non-discrimination and equality of opportunity on the basis of … sexual orientation”

    You could argue that the current scope of allowed conferences is too wide, but “bar associations, judicial associations or the judicial division of the American Bar Association” sounds fairly narrow.

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