University Club 'Public Service' Discount for Justices Causing a Stir

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The University Club of Washington, D.C., believes it has found a way to bring back U.S. Supreme Court justices and federal judges who had to give up their free memberships because of a new law prohibiting “an honorary club membership with a value of more than $50 in any calendar year.”

The club recently replaced the “Honorary Membership” with a new and deeply discounted “Public Service Membership” category. It is only for justices and judges who previously had the free memberships.

Typically, members over age 35 pay $3,400 annually ($185 monthly dues and $100 monthly minimum food and beverage purchase) and that is on top of a $5,000 initiation fee.

The justices and judges now pay $588 a year. Their savings in comparison to other members: $2,812.

Some believe that looks like a gift valued at more than $50.

“Somebody is making pretzels out of breadsticks here,” says Monroe Freedman, the legal ethicist who teaches at the Hofstra University School of Law. “They’re clearly playing games with the statute.”

Congress put the kibosh on the freebie by way of an amendment to a bill known as S. 3296, which went into effect Jan. 1. The primary legislation concerned extending authority of Supreme Court police to protect justices away from the court’s grounds. The amendment was tacked on by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

Then the University Club quickly retooled. It long prided itself on the fact that Supreme Court justices and other prominent federal judges were honorary members. Many were regulars in the social mix that tends toward business-professional-political types with a distinct but not wholly Republican flavor.

Sen. Kyl recently learned of the new membership category. He issued a statement today that said, in part, “Judges should err on the side of caution to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The Public Service Membership would appear to violate the letter and spirit of the law.”

The effort to bring federal judges back to the fold was announced in a Jan. 5 letter from University Club president Susan Wegrzyn to those who previously received honorary memberships. Wegrzyn implied there is a legitimate legal basis for the discounted fees, writing that the club’s board of governors “consulted with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to develop a new membership category believed to be consistent with S. 3296.”

The letter advised them to contact the club’s manager or membership director “only if you wish to decline.” Otherwise billing will be automatic. The letter notes that the new category receives the same rate as the Nonresident Member—it does not point out that those members do not reside or work within 50 miles of the club, and thus are expected to use the facilities less frequently.

A significant number of judges, and some justices, have rejoined with the Public Service Membership, according to club members.

The Administrative Office distanced itself from the initiative when asked for reasoning involved when the club’s board consulted with the agency to develop the new membership category.

Administrative Office spokesman Richard Carelli provided the ABA Journal with a written response: “The club informed the AO that it was considering offering judges a level of nonvoting membership already available to others, including members of Congress, for which dues were charged. The AO did not help develop a new membership category, nor were we asked to.”

Wegrzyn declined to discuss the issue, saying, “I don’t know that we’d have a comment on that. It’s a private club matter.”

Wegrzyn is serving a one-year term as president. In her day job, she is executive director of the National Club Association, which says on its website that it is “the only organization that actively lobbies the U.S. Congress on behalf of the private club industry.”

And Sen. Kyl, who obtained a copy of Wegrzyn’s letter (JPG) last week, apparently seeks to school her in his statement: “Members of Congress and administration officials are subject to the restrictions prohibiting such discounted memberships under our respective ethics rules, and members of the judiciary should be subject to similar ethical standards.”

Congress put the restriction on itself in 1996. The Senate Ethics Manual—the House has a similar version—states that “an honorary club membership will be valued at what it would cost an individual receiving no waiver or reduction to purchase club benefits or access equivalent to that provided with the honorary membership, without regard to anticipated or actual usage, and without regard to whether voting or equity rights are received.”

When Sen. Kyl was pushing last year to have similar restrictions on federal judges, much was made of the fact that Supreme Court justices were receiving about $50,000 worth of free club memberships, with Justice John Paul Stevens in the lead at $18,000. In the past, several justices have valued the University Club honorary membership variously at between $1,500 and $3,200 on financial disclosure forms.

Freedman says he is not against judges having honorary club memberships, though he would be concerned if such socializing might give certain parties or lawyers a kind of ex parte and unfair advantage in matters before courts. He is joined in that thought by Arthur Hellman, an expert on the judiciary’s self-discipline and a teacher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

“It doesn’t look good when judges are getting around the letter of the law,” Hellman says.

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