Judicial Travel Accountability Act Unveiled in Congress

Oct 17, 2019

Washington, DC – Today, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) led a bipartisan group in Congress to introduce the Judicial Travel Accountability Act, a bill to close loopholes that allow Supreme Court justices and federal judges to avoid disclosing travel and hospitality perks they enjoy as prominent public figures.  Given the life tenure and extraordinary power to shape American law that comes with a federal court seat, there is a strong public interest in better understanding the nature of judicial travel and hospitality – especially who pays for it.  The members’ legislation would help to bolster the non-partisan credibility of the Supreme Court, which has been eroding in the eyes of the public.

 

“Supreme Court justices and federal judges enjoy lifetime appointments and tremendous power to shape Americans’ lives.  With that power comes invitations from outside groups and individuals, many of whom are active litigants before federal courts,” said Whitehouse.  “To avoid conflicts of interest, the American people ought to know what hospitality, travel, and other emoluments justices and judges receive.  With a persistent, decades-long effort by big corporate and partisan donors to control the courts, it’s more important than ever to require transparency in our judiciary.”

 

“Full transparency is critical for ensuring public confidence in our system of justice.  Supreme Court justices and federal judges should always be held to the highest ethical standards,” said Cicilline.  “As Republicans like Mitch McConnell continue working with wealth special interests to change the face of the federal judiciary, it’s absolutely crucial that we pass this bill now.”

 

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and Representatives Ben Cline (R-VA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) joined Whitehouse and Cicilline in introducing the bill in both chambers of Congress.

 

Current judicial travel and gift disclosure requirements are failing.  The Ethics and Government Act requires that judges’ financial disclosure reports include only the “identity of the source and a brief description (including a travel itinerary, dates, and nature of expenses provided) of reimbursements” over certain dollar threshold, currently set at $390.  But judges and justices are not required to identify the dollar value of the reimbursement, and are exempted entirely from reporting any gifts in the form of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality.” 

 

The Judicial Travel Accountability Act would amend the Ethics and Government Act to require judicial officers’ financial disclosure statements to include the dollar amount of transportation, lodging, and meal expense reimbursements and gifts, as well as a detailed description of any meetings and events attended.

 

A 2015 report by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity revealed that in 2014, all nine Supreme Court justices received free trips, with six traveling overseas.  According to an analysis from the Washington Post, the justices took over 365 trips paid for by outside groups from 2011-2014.

 

Polling shows Americans are increasingly skeptical that the Supreme Court decides cases free of political bias.  According to recent polling by Quinnipiac University, a clear majority of Americans believe it is “mainly politics” that motivates the Supreme Court.  The findings also showed that majority has grown markedly.

 

Full text of the bill is available here.