WASHINGTON -- A panel named by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and led by another Supreme Court justice has said it would spend about two years on a study that will answer congressional criticism that judges have been lax in policing themselves.
The review will not include criticism of members of the Supreme Court. Rehnquist has directed the six-member committee to review only issues related to a 1980 federal law that allows punishments of federal judges who engage in ''conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts."
Some critics complained that the panel's mandate is not broad enough.
Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, told the panel's leader, Justice Stephen Breyer, in a letter late last month that there were ''significant judicial ethics concerns" about the Supreme Court that should be dealt with at the same time.
The panel, in the interest of protecting the public's confidence in the court, should consider whether Supreme Court justices should follow policies like those in the 1980 law, Leahy said.
Breyer did not address Leahy's request in a statement issued after the group's first meeting, Thursday at the Supreme Court. He said that Rehnquist's assignment for the committee ''is narrow but important" and will probably take from 18 months to two years. Members will look at how courts handled substantive complaints in recent years, he said.
The naming of the panel, which will report back to Rehnquist, followed criticism from F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, House Judiciary Committee chairman, that judges are not adequately disciplining their colleagues and may be covering up for them.
The focus of separate criticism of Supreme Court conduct and ethical responsibilities has been on Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia refused to step aside from hearing a case involving his good friend Vice President Dick Cheney after the two took a hunting trip to Louisiana in January.
The vacation came three weeks after the court had agreed to hear Cheney's appeal in the case about the closed-door workings of an energy task force he chaired. The high court has not yet ruled in the case.
Supreme Court justices decide for themselves whether they can impartially hear appeals, and their decisions are final.
Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, said Rehnquist would be smart to address the broader questions as well, or Congress may undertake them. ''The Scalia-Cheney hunting trip has really brought this issue front and center . . . [and] sparked public concern."