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Monday, February 04, 2008
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February 04, 2008
SENATE'S EFFORT TO BAN JUNKETS COULD STALL JUDICIAL PAY RAISES
Daily Journal Staff Writer
WASHINGTON - Efforts in Congress to give federal judges a major pay raise could be under threat because of an amendment to the legislation that would ban certain types of educational trips, which some senators oppose.
Last Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would grant judges a 29 percent pay increase, which would be the biggest in 20 years.
But the panel also adopted, along party lines, an amendment that would put tight restrictions on educational trips and seminars.
It would ban judges from attending privately funded educational events, which have attracted criticism from ethics watchdogs.
But some Republicans believe it goes too far by, for example, limiting to what extent universities can recompense judges for teaching courses.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who favors more limited ethical reforms, voiced concerns that the strict nature of the restrictions could be a major problem once the bill gets to the Senate floor.
"I suspect that the amendment will doom its passage," he said Thursday.
The amendment in question would ban judges from attending "a program, a significant purpose of which is the education of United States federal or state judges" hosted by any organization other than the federal government or relevant judicial and bar association groups.
The issue has been a bone of contention between the judiciary and Congress in recent years, following a series of media accounts of judges attending educational seminars that were funded by organizations that receive donations from big business and other interest groups.
The latest version of the bill puts a limit on gifts, including travel expenses and accommodation which exceed $2,000 for a single trip or $20,000 over the course of a year.
The U.S. Judicial Conference has defended the practice of judges attending seminars.
It has told senators that it believes its own ethical safeguards, which were reformed in September 2006 to expand disclosure requirements, are sufficient.
Kyl's main concern is that universities that invite judges and, more commonly, Supreme Court justices, to teach for short periods, would be beholden to the $2,000 cap for each visit.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who offered the amendment, maintains that creating an exception for universities would create a loophole that could be "abused by corporate and other interests."
Douglas Kendall, of public interest law firm Community Rights Counsel, which has been highly critical of some of the educational programs, agrees with Feingold's assessment.
Kendall points to the fact that one of the best-known privately funded groups that organizes seminars, the Virginia-based Law and Economics Center, is already affiliated with George Mason University.
"There's a record of abuse," he said. "Universities have sponsored some of the most problematic trips already."
The debate over Feingold's amendment means the entire pay raise bill faces an uncertain future once it reaches the Senate floor.
Senators are likely to suggest further changes in the hope of reaching a compromise.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in an interview that Kyl and others who feel the $2,000 cap on reimbursements is too small need to make a case for why it should be increased.
"If the cap isn't reasonable, people should let us know why it isn't reasonable and for what kind of events it isn't reasonable, and hopefully the judiciary will do that," she said.
Feinstein added that senators on both sides of the aisle are fully aware that there are "some egregious examples" of judges attending privately funded seminars, often at posh resorts.
At Thursday's meeting, Feinstein successfully petitioned Feingold to modify his amendment so it wouldn't prevent judges from participating in legal education programs overseas that are supported by the State Department.
"For a Supreme Court justice to go to a country like Uzbekistan or Rwanda ... and spend time discussing the rule of law and due process is an important thing," Feinstein said.
The underlying pay raise bill, welcomed by the judiciary, calls for district judges to earn $218,000, a substantial increase over the current salary of $169,300.
It increases the age at which judges can take senior status by four years.
Judges can take retirement when their age added to the number of years they have spent on the bench equals 80.
Under the new law, it would be 84.
The legislation would reduce the retirement pay that judges get if they take lucrative jobs in the private sector.
Judges would lose a dollar of their pension for every two dollars they earn above their old salary, down to baseline of 33 percent of their judicial pay.
The House Judiciary Committee has already passed a bill that would increase salaries by the same amount.
That bill does not contain a provision banning the junkets.