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Federal judges have a code of ethics but often aren't held accountable, NPR finds

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

NPR has been reporting on federal judges. They are among the top legal officials in the country. Their decisions trickle down from the cases they oversee to every single American citizen. The federal judiciary has a strict code of ethics, but in most cases, the rules are self-enforced. NPR's investigation has found that accountability is really hard to come by. Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach are here to share what they have learned. Hey to both of you.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

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CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So much of your reporting, I understand, has focused on different aspects of accountability. And, Carrie, I want to start with you because you focused on the experience of people who have worked with judges, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The judicial branch is really different. Federal judges have a lot of power over their courtrooms and their chambers, and they have lifetime tenure. And most every other kind of employee in the U.S. enjoys federal workplace protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights law, but that's actually not the case for the 30,000 people who work for the courts. They're not protected in the same way from discrimination on the job or in their job applications. Also, many of these law clerks are at the very start of their careers.

CHANG: Right.

JOHNSON: So the power imbalance between them and judges is huge. I spoke with Olivia Warren. She blew the whistle about abuse from the judge she clerked for only to see what she says was really very little change. Here's what Olivia Warren says.

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OLIVIA WARREN: I think that the judiciary has taken steps that, to me, feel like window dressing on the problem. I think what that communicates to people is that when someone comes forward and action isn't taken and there aren't meaningful reforms, that it's not something that the judiciary cares about or takes seriously.

JOHNSON: Now, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts says they've actually taken a lot of action. Since the #MeToo movement in 2017, they've set up a process in each court to accept complaints, to resolve disputes with employees and to do more training, things like that. But the number of complaints about abusive behavior is really low, sometimes in the single digits.

CHANG: Wow.

JOHNSON: And there are real questions about whether those systems really protect people who work in the courts and who want to remain anonymous.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, Tom, your reporting focused on financial disclosures - right? - and in particular, disclosures surrounding a certain type of legal seminar?

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DREISBACH: Yeah. So every year, a bunch of different groups like bar associations, nonprofits, law schools, they host what they call judicial education events. And one of the biggest hosts over the decades for these events is George Mason University, which has a conservative-leaning law school. It's based in Virginia. They put together these weeklong seminars for judges on a bunch of legal topics. And they often take place at luxury resorts, five-star hotels. We're talking places like Palm Beach, Fla., around Aspen, Colo., Alaska, even London. And judges get free rooms, free meals and free money towards those travel expenses.

And the events can be pretty ideologically slanted. We found that judges have heard a presentation from a far-right German politician along with corporate CEOs, members of an advocacy group that uses lawsuits to challenge environmental law. Now, the federal courts have recognized that the combination of luxury and ideology can be a bit of a bad look, and so they have had a set of disclosure requirements. And I talked to Gabe Roth - he's from the watchdog group Fix the Court - about why these disclosures are really important.

GABE ROTH: The public has a right to know whether or not its top legal officials have any potential conflicts going into hearing cases of - sometimes they're small bore, but a lot of the times they have major national impact.

DREISBACH: And the main thing we wanted to find out was, well, how well are these judges meeting those requirements for disclosure? Because George Mason is a public university in Virginia, we were able to file Freedom of Information Act requests, FOIAs, to get lists of what judges were attending. And then we compared that with what the judges publicly disclosed.

CHANG: And what did you find out?

DREISBACH: Well, we found about 40 judges did not disclose going to these luxury events within 30 days as they're required to. Another dozen or so failed to include the thousands of dollars in free perks they got on their annual financial disclosures. Those are due at the end of the year. And in some cases, we could not check at all because the judiciary has failed to get financial disclosures posted online. They've got a lot of backlogs. In some cases, there are security concerns.

And these issues affected judges really across the spectrum - liberals, conservatives and some big names. Among those names are Judge Aileen Cannon. People might know that name because she is currently presiding over former President Trump's classified documents case in Florida. Cannon went to two of these events at a resort near Yellowstone National Park, failed to file her disclosure within 30 days. The court where she works told me it was because of a technical issue on their website, and they uploaded it after I asked about it. And then there's the judge actually in charge of implementing judiciary policy, Robert Conrad. He's the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. He also attended these events, had multiple missing disclosures.

CHANG: Interesting.

DREISBACH: Yeah. And I should say, there's no indication that judges intentionally withheld this information.

CHANG: OK.

DREISBACH: I spoke to a number of judges and clerks, and they by and large expressed embarrassment and said this was all an oversight.

CHANG: Well, it sounds like your reporting identified some important gaps here, like both in terms of protections for people who work in the courts and the financial reports for these judges. And I'm curious, Carrie, what are you looking for next here?

JOHNSON: Members of Congress have already introduced a bill that would create an inspector general - that's a kind of watchdog - for federal judges, and they're also drafting legislation now that might give law clerks and other people who work for the federal court some legal protection. I'm also watching for a couple of independent reports due to come out later this summer, in particular one from the Government Accountability Office. They have been looking at the procedures the courts imposed after the #MeToo movement, whether those are really working and how the courts collect data about complaints. There have been some hints, Ailsa, the judiciary has not been completely forthcoming with these outside auditors, but the court system told me in a statement that they're actively cooperating with these reviews.

DREISBACH: And I would add, as Carrie has found with these workplace issues, a lot of the problem experts identified with disclosure comes down to judges policing other judges or themselves. You know, there are requirements for disclosure, but in some cases, there's no clear enforcement mechanism, and the penalties for nondisclosure appear to be pretty weak. Experts say to fix the problem, Congress would have to step in and make disclosure a priority and add some teeth and real penalties for failing to follow the requirements.

CHANG: That is NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach and justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Thank you to both of you.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Ailsa.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
Tom Dreisbach
Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.