On Wednesday, May 1, 2024, NPR reported that dozens of federal judges failed to fully disclose free trips to luxury resorts for legal conferences, as required by judicial ethics rules. An investigation by NPR found problems with how judges disclosed potential conflicts of interest from these privately funded seminars.

For almost two decades, the federal judiciary has recognized the need for transparency around judges receiving benefits such as free rooms, meals, and travel expenses from outside groups. In response, rules were implemented that required judges to file two types of disclosures – a report within 30 days of attending an event, and an annual financial disclosure report.

By examining publicly available records and requesting information from organizations that host many of these events, such as George Mason University, NPR identified issues with both disclosure systems. In nearly 40 cases, judges attended luxury resort events but failed to properly file the 30-day post-event report, with some forms being filed months or years late. Thirteen judges also failed to report benefits received on their annual financial disclosure forms. Another dozen judges had their 2021 or 2022 disclosure forms unavailable to the public due to delays in the administrative office’s website.

While not necessarily intentional, these reporting issues kept the public in the dark about potential conflicts of interest. Judges received benefits worth thousands of dollars like free lodging and meals at resorts, as well as discounted or reimbursed travel costs. Not receiving timely disclosure prevents people with cases before these judges from accessing information that could be relevant for recusal requests. It also diminishes public trust in judicial integrity and impartiality.

Problems were found among judges appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents going back decades. Specifically, Judges Aileen Cannon of the Southern District of Florida, Robert Conrad who leads the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and Leslie Gardner of the Middle District of Georgia all had missing or late disclosures. Upon being contacted by NPR, many judges acknowledged mistakes and pledged to correct the public record.

Some of the seminars hosted by George Mason University presented particular issues. Speakers have included a member of Germany’s far-right AfD party known for inflammatory statements on immigration and race, as well as corporate CEOs in industries that argue cases in federal court. Agendas also included descriptions of Supreme Court decisions conservatives view unfavorably. While judges assert these events are educational, not ideological, transparency is still needed given the power judges hold over issues like the environment, guns, and abortion.

Regardless of intent, ethics experts say the delays and gaps undermine the purpose of the disclosure rules since information loses value if made public well after the fact. Court clerks cited technical issues uploading forms and workload backlogs for the Administrative Office in reviewing redaction requests, but acknowledged improvements are needed. The debate continues over the appropriateness of judges accepting thousands of dollars in perks from groups that may appear before them in court. However, all agree that timely and complete disclosure allows the public and litigants to make their own judgments.

In summary, NPR’s investigation uncovered ongoing issues with the systems meant to provide transparency around judges receiving benefits from outside sponsors. While many problems seemed inadvertent, the end result is a lack of information for evaluating judicial impartiality. Increased diligence is needed to ensure disclosure rules fulfill their essential purpose.

 

 

Source: NPR