Committee to Evaluate Judicial Conduct and Disability Act
Tobias, Carl, Judicature
In late May, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist appointed the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act Study Committee to analyze how the federal judicial system has implemented the Judicial Councils Reform and Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 (28 U.S.C. §§ 851-54). That legislation authorizes anyone to file a complaint alleging that a federal appellate, district, magistrate, or bankruptcy judge has "engaged in conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts" or is mentally or physically unable to perform the judicial officer's duties. The statute neither prescribes ethical standards nor applies to the United States Supreme Court.
The chief justice appointed Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer to chair the new committee. He also named as members former chief judges Pasco Bowman II of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, former chief judges Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana and D. Brock Horn by of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine, and Sally Rider, the chief justice's administrative assistant.
Justice Breyer was serving as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee when Congress enacted the 1980 legislation that instituted the contemporary process for treating judicial conduct and disability. Justice Breyer, as chief judge of the First Circuit, as well as former chief judges Bowman and Wilkinson, secured valuable experience in discharging responsibilities for complaints filed against federal judges under the 1980 enactment.
When Chief Justice Rehnquist announced the committee's establishment, he stated that "there has been some recent criticism from Congress" regarding how the judiciary treats complaints pursuant to the 1980 law. Certain popular press accounts speculated that the committee might have a broad mandate and even assess the recent controversy involving requests that Supreme Court members, especially Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recuse themselves in specific cases. However, the chief justice apparently intended that the new committee focus on the efficacy of the 1980 act and on the lower federal courts. The group's formation seems animated in part by the perception that relations may be strained between the judiciary and members of Congress, particularly Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wis.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
These views were confirmed at the panel's first meeting in Washington, D.C., on June 10 when Justice Breyer stated that the "committee's task is narrow, but important. …