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Judicial Conference Opposes Sweeping Restrictions on Educational Programs

Contact: David Sellers, 202-502-2600

The Judicial Conference of the United States voted today to oppose legislation that would prohibit federal judges from accepting "anything of value in connection with a seminar" because the legislation is overly broad, would have unintended consequences, and has not been adequately studied.

S. 2990, the Judicial Education Reform Act of 2000, recently was introduced in the Senate in reaction to a report by a private legal organization criticizing judges' attendance at privately funded educational seminars. The Judiciary has not had an opportunity to study carefully and comment on the pending legislation, nor has it been the subject of hearings.

The legislation "is overly broad; would have unintended consequences, such as prohibiting federal judges from reimbursed attendance at bar association meetings and law school seminars; raises potential constitutional issues, such as imposing an undue burden on speech; and would mandate an inappropriate censorship role for the Federal Judicial Center," the Conference said in a resolution it adopted today. "The Center is charged by law with providing continuing education for judges and court personnel. For 32 years the Center has ably performed this task," the Executive Committee said in its report to the Conference.

In proposing the resolution, the Conference's Executive Committee acknowledged the importance of the public's trust and confidence in its Judiciary "as the bedrock upon which our independent Judiciary depends." However, it also cautioned that the "First Amendment to the United States Constitution, itself, strongly counsels against undue and overly broad efforts to limit or restrict anyone's access to ideas."

While there clearly are important distinctions between the Judiciary and the other two branches of government, the proposed legislation would appear to subject judges to the most restrictive rules of any government officials. Existing legal and ethical provisions already restrict judges from accepting benefits from parties in litigation before them and provide for disqualification in any instance where a judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned.

S. 2990 would assign the board of the Federal Judicial Center the power to authorize government funding for judges to attend only those "seminars that are conducted in a manner so as to maintain the public's confidence in an unbiased and fair-minded Judiciary." The Center has not sought this expansive authority into a new area of controversy and has been provided with no road map for assuring or approving content.

"All of these thoughts suggest that a more prudent course for the courts, and those who are interested in judicial education, would be to have congressional hearings on this question, followed by study and review of those proposals that may come forward. This is not a time for hasty legislation that may well be more dangerous than the concerns it is designed to allay."

In other action:

  • Since its previous session in March, the Judicial Conference approved a recommendation for the creation of new Article III judgeships and transmitted the recommendation to Congress. The request is for six permanent and four temporary circuit judgeships; 30 permanent and 23 temporary judgeships; the conversion of seven temporary district judgeships to permanent; and the extension of one temporary judgeship. A court-by-court listing is attached. Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), and ranking minority member, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), reported to the Conference that a bill incorporating its judgeship recommendations will be introduced in the Senate today. The last omnibus judgeship bill was enacted in December 1990. Last year nine judgeships were authorized in an appropriation bill in an attempt to address the heavy workload of the Southwest border courts.
  • Voted to encourage federal courts to post their local rules on their own web sites and if they do not have a local web site, to develop one even if only to post their local rules. The intent is to link the local sites to the Judiciary's web site, www.uscourts.gov, so that there will be a single source for all local rules that is easily accessible by the bench, bar, and public. Approximately 52 district courts, 59 bankruptcy courts, and eight courts of appeals maintain Internet sites that contain their local rules.

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 composed of the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic 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. A list of Conference members is attached.