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New judiciary ethics rules close 'loopholes' to require more disclosure of private travel costs

CNN  — 

After pressure from members of Congress, the federal judiciary revised its financial disclosure rules to require that federal judges – including Supreme Court justices – to be more specific when disclosing non-business travel.

Under the Ethics in Government Act, judges are required to report information related to gifts of more than minimal value that are received from any source other than a relative. But the law provides an exemption for “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality.”

The new regulations now require that judges disclose non-business stays at resorts, the use of private jets and instances when a third party reimburses a host for costs associated with a visit.

“The Judicial Conference’s amendment closes a large loophole that allowed individuals and companies with interests before the courts secretly to shower judges, including the Justices, with lavish gifts, including five-star travel,” said Stephen Gillers of the NYU School of Law.

“Until the change, the true benefactors could remain hidden by calling the gifts ‘personal hospitality,’” Gillers said.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island has led the charge on behalf of some members of Congress to press the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to more clearly define the scope of the exemption. Late Tuesday, he announced that he had received a response.

“Over the past several months, the Committee has considered this matter,” Roslynn R. Mauskopf, director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, said in a recent letter to Whitehouse. The new policy – effective March 14 – now appears in the Judicial Conference regulations.

According to the letter, the non-business exemption applies to food, lodging or entertainment and it is intended to cover such gifts of a “personal non-business nature.” But the Judicial Conference regulations now include new language specifying that the exemption does not include “transportation that substitutes for commercial transportation ” (such as a private jet) and “gifts extended at a commercial property” such as a resort. The exemption also does not cover gifts paid for by an individual other than the host.

“The new guidance is a good start because it closes some of the loopholes that have permitted judges and justices to omit certain perks from their annual disclosures,” said Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, who has pressed for more transparency from the judiciary. But he says more needs to be done.

“The larger goal for reformers, though, is to bring the judiciary’s travel and gift rules in line with those of the other two branches, which would mean pre-approval from an ethics body for free trips and a contemporaneous post-travel report that lists who paid, the total cost and who else attended,” Roth said.

For now, Whitehouse says he is pleased with the revisions which he says will help the public better understand who is paying for the Justices travel in some instances.

He said he hoped the new rule is a “harbinger of more ethics and transparency improvements to come for the Supreme Court.”