Federal courts tweak ethics rule for travel, meals and more

Supreme Court justices have a narrower exemption for 'personal hospitality' after pressure from lawmakers

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., participates in a news conference on March 9.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., participates in a news conference on March 9. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 29, 2023 at 11:39am

Federal courts have implemented a rare tweak to their ethics rules for Supreme Court justices and federal judges following bipartisan congressional pressure.

The Judicial Conference of the United States has adopted a new reporting rule for travel and other hospitality gifts with a narrower exemption for what’s known as “personal hospitality,” according to a letter released Tuesday through Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, & Federal Rights.

The change from the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts comes following years of pressure on the court over ethics issues, with Whitehouse as one of the most vocal on the issue, and a string of public reports about the ethics decisions of the justices.

“These new rules will make it much harder for justices to travel, dine, hunt, or vacation for free at the private resort of a wealthy corporate executive — especially one with business before their court — and avoid disclosing that information to the public,” Whitehouse said in a press release.

The change follows years of bipartisan concerns from lawmakers about ethics at the high court. In 2021, Whitehouse and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the justices asking about the hospitality rules as well as broader concerns about an ethics standard for the justices.

Under the new rule, judges and justices can only avoid reporting “personal hospitality” like food and lodging when staying at a personal home, according to the March 23 letter to Whitehouse from Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

If the food or lodging is at a commercial facility or the lodging is owned by an entity other than an individual it must be disclosed, according to the letter. The new regulations went into effect this month, Mauskopf’s letter said.

The rules apply to disclosures mandated by federal law for members of all three branches of the government. Whitehouse and some others said justices had taken advantage of an exemption from disclosure for personal hospitality.

Advocates have called for more robust hospitality reporting rules and ethics standards for more than a decade. In 2004, an environmental group asked Justice Antonin Scalia to recuse himself from a case involving then-Vice President Dick Cheney because the former rode on Air Force Two during a hunting trip — a request Scalia refused.

For years there have been bipartisan efforts to address ethics concerns among Supreme Court justices and federal judges more broadly.

Last Congress, legislators passed a law creating a new requirement for federal judges to post stock transactions but have so far not acted on further ethics rules for federal judges or Supreme Court justices.

Last year Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted on party lines to advance a bill that would create new recusal standards for when a justice should not sit on a case because of a conflict and require the creation of a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices and a new code of conduct for all federal judges, among other provisions.

That measure did not advance in the full House and faced uniform Republican opposition.