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Conference Moves to Enhance Judges' Accountability, Ethical Compliance

September 19, 2006

Contact: David Sellers, 202-502-2600

The Judicial Conference of the United States today approved two policies aimed at aiding and enhancing judges' compliance with established ethical obligations.

The Conference voted to require all federal courts to use conflict-checking computer software to identify cases in which judges may have a financial conflict of interest and should disqualify themselves. It also approved a new policy requiring greater disclosure by both those who provide privately funded educational programs for judges and the judges who attend such programs.

In recommending the mandatory conflict-checking policy, the Conference's Committee on Codes of Conduct said it seeks to reassure the public of the judiciary's commitment to maintaining the highest standards of ethical conduct. According to the Committee report, "A fair reading of the judiciary's record shows that federal judges take their recusal obligations very seriously, and this commitment will be underscored by adoption of a mandatory automated conflict screening policy." The Committee further stated, "While automated screening is not foolproof, it is an efficient and effective supplement to a judicial officer's individualized review."

Automated conflict screening is available for district and bankruptcy courts through the Case Management/Electronic Case Files system. A similar mechanism is available for the courts of appeals in the Appellate Information Management System (AIMS) and will be provided in the appellate version of CM/ECF, which is in the process of being installed.

The second new Conference policy requires non-government educational program providers (other than bar and judicial associations, and co-sponsors of programs offered by the Federal Judicial Center or National Judicial College) to disclose certain information about their programs and their sources of funding.

Covered educational program providers that reimburse or pay judges directly for more than $305 in expenses for attending a program as speakers, panelists or students will now be required to publicly disclose all sources of support for the seminar, as well as information about the topics to be covered and the names of anticipated speakers. Judges are barred from accepting such reimbursements unless they first ascertain that the program providers have made the required disclosures. Judges also must report their attendance within 30 days of the conclusion of the program. Both the seminar provider and judge specific disclosures will be publicly available on the Internet.

In recommending the change, the Conference's Committee on the Judicial Branch said its overarching objective was "greater transparency and accountability." At the same time, the Committee noted the importance of continuing education of judges in law, science, history, economics, sociology, philosophy, and other disciplines. It added: "In view of the compelling need for and many benefits of continuing education, the committee believes that neither the Judicial Conference nor any other entity should seek to limit judges' access to knowledge or censor their right to increase their knowledge."

The Judicial Conference of the United States is the principal policy-making body for the federal court system. The Chief Justice serves as the presiding officer of the Conference, which is comprised of the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographical circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. The Conference meets twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch.