While the nation's attention was riveted on Congress and its response to the financial crisis in recent days, Congress found time to pass a bill that federal judges are really not going to like: a ban on gifts of honorary club memberships valued at more than $50 per year for all federal judges, from the Supreme Court on down. It passed the Senate on Sept. 25 and the House of Representatives on Sept. 29, and it is expected to be signed by President George W. Bush anytime.
The ban was attached to a routine bill, S. 3296, which extended for five more years the authority of Supreme Court police to protect Supreme Court justices beyond the grounds of the Court. As sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy. (D-Vt.) said on the floor of the Senate Sept. 25, "Although I would prefer to pass this measure clean, Senator Kyl has insisted on adding an amendment." That would be Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) who has tried to tack several ethics-related restrictions on legislation aimed at giving federal judges salary increases. In earlier debates over such legislation, Kyl said that acceptance of free memberships to clubs and organizations, routine in many areas, nonetheless gave the appearance of impropriety.
As Kyl mentioned, several Supreme Court justices have reported on their financial disclosure forms receiving such free memberships, including Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.'s membership in the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., valued at $12,000 in 2006 (though he said he only used it once for dining.) Four justices Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg reported honorary memberships in the University Club in D.C., which they valued at $3,200 or less.
We reported here in May on the club memberships, and noted that the Judicial Conference objected to an earlier version of Kyl's amendment. That version would have banned gifts of all kinds of honorary memberships including bar associations, inns of court, and other historical and civic organizations. In a letter to the Senate in January, the conference said the language was "extraordinarily broad." Kyl apparently got the message, because the language he inserted last week uses the phrase "honorary club membership," not the broader category of "honorary membership." The statute does not define a club, but one source involved in the legislative process says the new language should allow for gifts of membership for judges in bar groups and the like. But country clubs and similar organizations seem to be off limits.
The fact that Kyl added the amendment to a routine bill, rather than keeping it as part of pending judicial salary increase legislation, may also be a signal that chances for passage of the pay increase are dimming in this session of Congress.
Footnote: Another routine provision of the bill that passed this week changed the title of the administrative assistant to the chief justice to "counselor" to the chief justice. The position, created by Congress in 1972 and currently occupied by Jeffrey Minear, does not change. But Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said the new title "more accurately reflects the responsibilities of the position," which include being Roberts' chief of staff, helping the chief justice administer the Court and the judiciary, as well as serving as the chief's liaison to other government agencies.