When Judges Are Accused: An Initial Look at the New Federal Judicial Misconduct Rules

42 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2008 Last revised: 26 Oct 2009

See all articles by Arthur D. Hellman

Arthur D. Hellman

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law (Emeritus)


On March 11, 2008, the Judicial Conference of the United States, the administrative policy-making body of the federal judiciary, approved the first set of nationally binding rules for dealing with accusations of misconduct by federal judges. The new rules implement recommendations made by a committee chaired by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. The Breyer Committee found that although the judiciary has been doing a very good overall job in handling complaints against judges, the error rate in high-visibility cases is far too high.

The new regulatory regime comes into existence at a time when federal judges have been accused of ethical transgressions that span the spectrum of actionable misbehavior. Indeed, at least three judges face the possibility of impeachment proceedings.

This article examines the newly adopted misconduct rules against the background of these recent controversies. The underlying question is the same one that Congress grappled with when it established the current statutory framework in 1980: can federal judges be trusted to investigate and impose appropriate discipline for misconduct in their ranks?

The article begins with a brief account of the history that led to the promulgation of the new rules. Next, the article outlines the procedures established by Congress and the judiciary for handling allegations of misconduct by federal judges. The remainder of the article addresses the major issues raised by the new rules: the move toward greater centralization in the administration of the disciplinary system; the definition of misconduct; the possible need for greater procedural formality; the nature and timing of public disclosure; and efforts to make the process more visible.

Keywords: federal courts, judicial ethics, judicial discipline, legislation

Suggested Citation

Hellman, Arthur D., When Judges Are Accused: An Initial Look at the New Federal Judicial Misconduct Rules. Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, Vol. 22, p. 325, 2008, U. of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-09, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1116703

Arthur D. Hellman (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law (Emeritus) ( email )

3900 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States

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