WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has ordered a study of federal judicial ethics, a move that follows intense criticism of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for taking a hunting trip with his friend, Vice President Dick Cheney.
A six-member committee appointed by Rehnquist will begin meeting next month, about the time the court is expected to rule in a case involving Cheney that generated much criticism. Rehnquist named Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton appointee, to chair the panel.
Supreme Court justices decide for themselves if they have conflicts of interest, and their decisions are final. Separately, a law allows complaints to be lodged alleging federal judges have engaged in "conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, told judicial leaders at a private meeting this spring that they were not adequately disciplining their colleagues.
"I decided that the best way to see if there are any real problems is to have a committee look into it," Rehnquist said yesterday through a court spokesman.
Congressional Democrats and many newspaper editorials demanded that Scalia step aside when it was disclosed he took the trip in January with Cheney, on the vice president's plane, three weeks after the court agreed to hear the Bush administration's appeal of a ruling that ordered public disclosure of details of an energy task force chaired by Cheney.
Scalia refused to disqualify himself, saying the case did not come up during the trip, and he could rule fairly.
Rehnquist, a Republican who joined the high court in 1972, has defended Scalia, one of the court's staunchest conservatives.
The American Bar Association is working on new conduct rules to be recommended for judges.
Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein predicted the report will spell out better guidelines for federal judges and Supreme Court justices while also addressing misgivings raised by Scalia's case.
"Even though they would deny it, the court is mindful that it needs to have good public relations," Rothstein said.
Ethical questions have not been limited to Scalia. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has participated in events sponsored by the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, two groups that are involved in issues at the court.
Other members of Rehnquist's committee are Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals, Senior Judge Pasco M. Bowman of the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals and US District Judge Sarah Evans Barker of Indiana, all Reagan nominees; US District Judge D. Brock Hornby of Maine, named to the bench by the first President Bush; and Rehnquist's top aide, Sally M. Rider.
It was unclear when the committee would finish its work or what Rehnquist would do with any recommendations. Rehnquist heads the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making board for the federal court system.