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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, August 5, 2006

Judicial watchdog resisted as 'ill-advised'

By Audrey McAvoy
Associated Press

A bill before Congress that would establish an independent watchdog to oversee the federal judiciary is "dangerous and ill-advised" and could undermine the courts' impartiality, the head of the nation's largest lawyers group said yesterday.

The House Judiciary Committee chairman, James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in April proposed setting up such a body to police judges' acceptance of free trips or their possible financial interests with groups that could appear before them in court.

Sensenbrenner said paid trips undermined the public's perception of the fairness of the judiciary.

But American Bar Association president Michael Greco said yesterday at a press conference during the group's national convention in Honolulu that the bill would give the legislative branch too much power.

"These bills create a very real danger that members of Congress who are unhappy with a particular judicial decision or with the actions of a particular court would attempt to use an inspector general to intimidate those judges," Greco said. "This is far too great a risk for us to take. It could easily undermine the impartiality of our courts."

He said the ABA's policymaking body meeting at the convention would consider adopting a resolution opposing the creation of an inspector general.

Greco said Congress already had oversight over the judiciary through its power to approve judicial budgets and impeach judges who violate their oaths of office. Moreover, he said the judiciary's ethical codes and internal disciplinary systems were sufficient to keep the judges honest.

The group's resolution comes a few months after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told an ABA gathering in May that she thought the Republican proposal was a "really scary idea," adding "the judiciary is under assault in a way that I haven't seen before."

When Greco asked Ginsburg at that meeting what lawyers could do, she said attorneys could speak up and "say these efforts are wrong." Judges, she said, cannot lobby on their own behalf.

Sensenbrenner and Grassley have argued that recently disclosed violations of ethics rules show that the judiciary cannot be trusted to police itself.

The Community Rights Counsel, a public interest law firm that represents environmental interests, said in an April report that the number of trips taken by federal judges and paid for by interest groups has increased by about 25 percent since the 1990s.

The ABA's meeting in Hawai'i lasts through Tuesday.