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New Disclosure Rules Are a Good Start (But It’s a Very Low Bar)

We just learned that the federal judiciary’s policymaking body, the Judicial Conference of the U.S., has adopted a new rule that could shed light on some of the perks that judges and Supreme Court justices often receive.

The Conference has narrowed what’s called the “personal hospitality exemption.”

In the past, jurists have been able to omit from their annual financial disclosure reports any free trips they take so long as they counted their benefactor as a “friend” or family member.

Now judges and justices will have to list the perks when they’re free stays at commercial properties like hotels or resorts paid for by an unrelated third party, and they’ll have to indicate whether any free transportation they’ve received is via private plane.

This change came at the behest of Sen. Whitehouse and transparency advocates.

Fix the Court executive director Gabe Roth released this statement in response:

I appreciate that judiciary officials are willing to engage with lawmakers and restrict the clear loopholes in the judicial gift and travel reporting rules.

It’s reasonable to expect that a judge or justice who takes a ride on a private jet or stays in a fancy hotel on his or her friend’s dime would be required to include that information in their annual disclosure, and the new rule appears to require such reporting.

That said, it’s a shame that travel and gift reporting rules in the third branch will remain less stringent than those in the other two branches, and Congress should pursue bipartisan legislation that would make the rules in all three branches on par with one another.

Right now, if a member of Congress wants to take a free trip, whether to a hotel a friend owns or to a foreign country, the lawmaker first has to get approval from the House or Senate Ethics Committee, and then within a month of their return, they must file a report that lists who paid, the total cost of the trip and who else attended.

All we have in the judiciary is a vague, once-annually reported line in disclosures (Part IV) that says Organization X paid for a judge’s “transportation, meals, and hotel,” and without any dollar amounts. That doesn’t cut it.

Finally, it’s ridiculous that the judiciary wants to keep hidden many of its ethics advisory opinions, as we also learned today.

“The public should be able to see the type of advice judges are giving other judges regarding their ethical obligations,” Roth concluded. “What could they possibly be hiding?”

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