Judicial Ethics Education in the Federal Courts

By Cooke, John S. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Judicial Ethics Education in the Federal Courts


Cooke, John S., Justice System Journal


Given the importance of judicial ethics to the public's confidence in the judiciary, educating judges about ethics is a high and continuing priority in the federal courts. People appointed as federal judges typically have strong records of integrity and are motivated to act ethically, but inadvertent mistakes sometimes occur, and they harm the reputation of the judge and the judiciary. The Federal Judicial Center, the education agency for the federal courts, works closely with the Judicial Conference committees responsible for administering and interpreting the sources of ethical rules: statutes and the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. Together they have developed curricula for in-person programs and resources in hard-copy and online formats, as well as television programs. Ethics is included in orientation programs for new judges and in annual continuing education programs for judges. These sessions are usually interactive discussions, often using real or hypothetical problems. By regularly covering ethics, the goal is to heighten judges' sensitivity to ethical issues.

"Deference to the judgments and rulings of courts depends upon public confidence in the integrity and independence of judges." Code of Conduct for United States Judges, Canon 1 Commentary.

Of the countless decisions that judges make, few are more likely than ethical mistakes to undermine public trust in the judiciary or to embarrass individual judges. The editors' decision to devote this issue of the Justice System Joumai to judicial ethics reflects that, even with all the complex legal, social, and administrative issues facing the courts, adherence to established ethical standards must always be a priority.

The importance of judicial ethics is evidenced not only in timeless principles but also in contemporary headlines. At its September 2006 meeting, the Judicial Conference of the United States (JCUS) took several actions to respond to criticisms about judges' ethics from Congress and the media. The JCUS adopted reporting requirements for judges' attendance at privately funded seminars and a mandate to use conflict-screening automation tools to reduce the risk that judges will sit in cases in which they have financial interests. Chief Justice Roberts also received at that meeting a report on the judiciary's application of the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980, prepared by a committee appointed by Chief Justice Rehnquist and chaired by Justice Breyer. When he announced the formation of the committee, Chief Justice Rehnquist acknowledged that he was responding "to criticism from Congress" about the administration of the Act (Breyer Committee, 2006:App. A). The committee recommended several actions, including increased education of judges responsible for administering the Act. (For a more complete examination of the Breyer Committee report, see Hellman, in this issue.)

Given the importance of judges' adherence to ethical standards, teaching about ethics is a major part of education in the federal judiciary. This article discusses how education on judicial ethics is conducted in the federal courts. The first part of the article provides an overview of the major sources of ethical rules and guidelines, the judges who are subject to them, and the agencies that provide education about them, as well as observations about particular educational challenges in ethics training. The second part of the article describes educational programs and materials on judicial ethics, how they are developed and delivered, and how they deal with the challenges.

THE RULES AND GUIDELINES, THE JUDGES, AND THE EDUCATION PROVIDERS

The Rules and Guidelines. The two major sources of ethical rules for federal judges are the Code of Conduct for United States Judges (Code of Conduct), which JCUS adopted in 1973 and has amended several times since, and several statutes, some of which apply solely to judges and others of which apply to many or all federal government employees. …

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