Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Page 3


Ethics Watchdogs Criticize Study of Gift Restrictions for Judges


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The fairness and accuracy of a study criticizing the way California regulates gift-giving to judges was itself criticized yesterday by state judicial ethics watchdogs.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joanne O’Donnell, current chair of the California Judges Association Judicial Ethics Committee, said contentions by the private group HALT were “very misleading.”

The main criticism levied against California’s judicial accountability system, which  was ranked fifth in the nation in a study by HALT released on Thursday, was the state’s alleged failure to meaningfully limit the reimbursements and compensation that a judge may accept in combination with privately funded trips.

HALT, or Help Abolish Legal Tyranny, calls itself “the nation’s largest legal reform organization, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group.” It is frequently critical of the legal profession and the courts.

Suzanne Blonder, HALT senior counsel, said the current restrictions on judicial officers contain a “major loophole” which which permit private interests to “wine and dine” judicial officers “with no real limitations” so long as the expenditure could be tied to some sort of judicial educational program, however tangential the relationship.

But O’Donnell said California’s rules work fine.

“The fact that people may violate [the rules] from time to time doesn’t mean that California doesn’t have any meaningful restrictions,” the judge said. She explained that there are three sets of “very carefully drafted” prohibitions on gift receipts by judges in California.

Code of Judicial Ethics Canon 4D(6)(a) forbids a judge from accepting any gifts unless the gift is “incidental to…an activity devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system or the administration of justice. “

Cannon 4D(6)(b) only permits judges to accept “advances or reimbursement for the reasonable cost of travel, transportation, lodging, and subsistence which is directly related to participation in any judicial, educational, civic, or governmental program or bar-related function or activity, devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice.”

Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.9 limits the gifts and honoraria a judicial officer can receive to $350 in a calendar year. This $350 limit does not apply to payments, advances, or reimbursements, by a private entity for transportation, lodging and subsistence that was “reasonably related to a judicial or governmental purpose, or to an issue of state, national, or international public policy,” if the travel was “in connection with a speech, practice demonstration, or group or panel discussion given or participated in by the judge.”

Finally, judicial officers must comply with the Fair Political Practices Commission rules for disclosing any gifts and travel reimbursements or advances under the Political Reform Act of 1974.

The director and chief counsel of the Commission on Judicial Performance, Victoria Henley, said the commission does not receive “a lot of complaints” about alleged violations of the gift rules, and could not recall any case involving the alleged violation of the gift rules since Sec. 170.9 passed in the mid-1990’s. Henley opined that the gift rule violations were “a far greater issue on the federal level.”

The information released by the CJP for 2007 indicated that none of the public or private discipline imposed during that year involved violations of the gift restrictions of the type Blonder described.

California Judges Association President and Plumas Superior Court Judge Ira Kaufman also said he was unaware of any such abuses under the existing gift restrictions and said “I think we’re doing fine” with the current rules.

Cynthia Gray, director of the non-partisan, non-profit Center for Judicial Conduct, an information-sharing organization on judicial ethics and discipline associated with the American Judicature Society, explained  that “most states have comprehensive gift restrictions.” She suggested that HALT’s criticisms were based on the absence of a restriction specifically addressing corporate-sponsored seminars and said:

“No state has that. But that doesn’t mean that the more general rules won’t apply.”      

The HALT study also faulted California for failing to publish judges’ annual financial disclosure information online and for continuing to impose private forms of discipline. However, the CJP  publishes private discipline summaries on its Web site, as well as information regarding public discipline and dismissals, Henley noted.

She said that HALT “obviously rejects the notion that there’s anything good about private discipline,” but suggested that the elimination of private discipline results in fewer instances of discipline to avoid public discipline for smaller matters. She said she “wouldn’t be surprised”  if minor infractions are routinely just dismissed, and she said: “we can all argue forever as to whether that would be better.”


Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company