Norms of conduct that developed over centuries need to be modified and updated
was forced to resign as secretary of agriculture last year because he
accepted gifts from companies his department regulated. In 1989, House Speaker
Jim Wright resigned because he had improperly received funds from groups
interested in legislation.
Yet, judicial officials routinely accept gifts and favors from legal publishers with an interest in court decisions -- and the public usually knows nothing of it.
This practice is legal and West Publishing Co. maintains that its activities and those of its competitors fall well within the bounds of ethical guidelines. Yet it is occurring as legal publishing becomes more competitive and publishers fight many of their battles in the courts. The issues decided by judges in their administrative capacities are now worth tens of millions of dollars to the industry.
"Things have to change," said Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University. "The norms of conduct that developed over the centuries need to be modified and updated."
The changes recommended by Lubet and others go beyond legal publishing to address a general lack of scrutiny, clear standards and oversight of the judiciary. Their recommendations include greater sensitivity and care governing interactions with court contractors and litigants, a stronger commitment by judges to the financial disclosure provisions now on the books and more active scrutiny by the press.
Individuals are discouraged from checking reports because judges are given the name of everyone requesting their forms
is a check on tyranny and corruption. Knowing this, legislators
responded to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s by adopting the Ethics in
Government Act, which requires public officials to disclose a broad accounting of
their financial holdings, including a list of any gifts, lecture fees or other
The judiciary is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, has no inspector general, or partisan cross-checking
are accustomed to examining the financial disclosure forms of Cabinet
nominees and members of Congress. Yet this newspaper, like most others, doesn't
routinely run reports on the disclosure forms of Minnesota federal judges.
Bilby and other judges have urged their colleagues to stop accepting benefits
a symbiotic relationship grew among legal publishers and judges. It
made sense that the publishers, who were providing a service to the court and
making a profit, would also give something back to the judges whose editorial
product they sold. Indeed, rules that govern judicial conduct specifically allow
gifts of law books to judges.
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