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Judges' special tags raise ethics questions
Watchdog group calls vehicle tag practice 'improper'
(Published July 25, 2005)

By ANGELA LOIACONO
Staff Writer

A Washington-based public interest group is strongly criticizing the D.C. government's long-practiced tradition of allowing elected politicians to decide who gets assigned low-numbered license tags as part of registering their motor vehicles.

"The practice is improper on its face and probably a violation under the law, if prosecuted," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a watchdog organization that focuses on the federal judiciary. "License plates have to do with the process of government...it's being distorted on behalf of political beneficiaries."

The Common Denominator reported July 11 that several local and federal judges, including U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have been assigned low-numbered tags this year by Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

The low tags, assigned exclusively by the mayor and 13 D.C. City Council members, are widely regarded as gifts to political supporters and have sometimes been taken away from individuals who fall out of political favor. Recipients of the low tags are not required to pay the routine additional fees that other motorists are charged for registering special license tags to motor vehicles in the District.

Repeated attempts by The Common Denominator to contact judges who have been assigned the low tags have been unsuccessful, and none of the judge have explained why they accepted the plate.

"They asked for them," said Vincent Morris, spokesman for Mayor Williams.

The mayor was unavailable for comment at press time, because he was vacationing in Hawaii.

The mayor awarded low tag numbers to retiring D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice Wagner, retired D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Theodore R. Newman and former Chief Judge Andrew Hood, D.C. Superior Court Senior Judges Fred Ugast and Bruce S. Melcher, D.C. Superior Court Associate Judges Susan R. Winfield, Robert R. Rigsby and Erik Christian, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Judge Alan D. Lourie, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justice Ginsburg.

Rehnquist has not registered the low tag to a vehicle, possibly because he is not a D.C. resident, according to a Supreme Court spokeswoman.

Councilman Phil Mendelson, D-At Large, who chairs the council's Committee on the Judiciary, said through a spokesman that he doesn't consider the practice of assigning low-numbered tags to judges to be something that his committee needs to address.

"We don't have much interaction with the courts ... he's not too concerned about it," said Alec Evans, a spokesman for Mendelson.

Lawyers affiliated with the D.C. Bar Association expressed reluctance to publicly criticize judges in whose court they may need to argue a case. A spokesman for the American Bar Association referred a reporter for The Common Denominator to the Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from engaging in any activities that may compromise their impartiality.

"Expressions of bias or prejudice by a judge, even outside the judge's judicial activities, may cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge," according to the ABA's Web site.

"Judges should be wary of anything that lends the appearance of impropriety," said Judicial Watch's Fitton. "I encourage the judges to re-evaluate whether it's proper."

Low-numbered license plates may be found currently on as many as 779 vehicles in the District. Sterling Tucker, former chairman of the D.C. City Council, said he recalls the practice being in place in the 1960s, before the District was granted home rule by Congress.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator