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October 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


House Judiciary Committee Passes IG Bill

The Judicial Conference has taken action to allay concerns about judges’ financial conflicts of interest, attendance at educational seminars and the proper investigation of judicial misconduct. Last month, however, the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Representative F. James Sensenbrenner, signaled they’d like to go further.

Before adjourning until mid-November, the House Judiciary Committee acted on H.R. 5219, the Judicial Transparency and Ethics Enhancement Act of 2006, a bill that would establish an Inspector General within the judicial branch. The IG would conduct investigations of complaints of judicial misconduct, conduct and supervise audits, detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, and recommend changes in laws or regulations governing the judicial branch. The Committee passed the bill, voting 20-6 along party lines. A number of Democrats and Republicans on the 39-member committee were not present.

The original bill was amended in committee to provide term limits for the IG; to allow the Chief Justice to remove the IG, provided he communicates the reasons to Congress; to change the scope of permissible investigations; to restrict a misconduct investigation until there has been a denial of a petition by the judicial council or upon referral to the Judicial Conference; and to prohibit investigations “directly related to the merits or a decision by a judge or court.” These modifications are insufficient to allay the objections to the bill established by the Conference and the Judiciary remains opposed to H.R. 5219 and any other legislation creating an IG.

In a speech at a Georgetown University Law School conference on the state of the Judiciary, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. described bills such as H. R. 5219 as “dangerous intrusions by other branches.” The Judicial Conference has called the creation of an IG for the Judiciary “an entirely unnecessary and inappropriate imposition of control over the Judiciary that creates precedents for further erosion of the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of powers.” An IG would, according to the Conference, “threaten the independence of judicial decision making, and has serious implications for the separation of powers. Rigorous and effective systems and mechanisms for audit, review, and investigation currently exist in the Judiciary, making the legislation duplicative, intrusive, and unnecessary.”

The prospects for the bill this Congress are uncertain, as both the full House and Senate would have to act on the bill for it to become law, and only a brief lame-duck session of Congress remains before all bills expire on January 3, 2007.

The Administrative Office already has statutory responsibility to conduct audits of the courts. Each year, over 100 financial and administrative audits are conducted of Judiciary funds, financial activities, operations and systems—all in accordance with government audit standards. Approximately 30 percent of all court units receive a financial audit annually. In addition, the Judiciary has had a formal program since 1988, approved and supervised by the Judicial Conference, addressing allegations of waste, fraud and abuse.

At its September 2006 meeting, the Judicial Conference also implemented several policies aimed at aiding and enhancing judges’ compliance with established ethical obligations. (See cover story on the Judicial Conference.)