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Buying influence? Corporations, conservative nonprofits sponsor seminars for judges
Investigation » Funding raises questions about educational trips and conflicts of interest.
First Published Mar 28 2013 08:18 am • Last Updated Mar 28 2013 09:55 pm

Conservative foundations, multinational oil companies and a prescription drug maker were the most frequent sponsors of more than 100 expense-paid educational seminars attended by federal judges over a 4 1/2-year period, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.

Among the seminar titles were "The Moral Foundations of Capitalism," "Corporations and the Limits of Criminal Law" and "Terrorism, Climate & Central Planning: Challenges to Liberty & the Rule of Law."

At a glance

Utah’s Federal Judges took few trips

In the U.S. District for Utah, just four of 19 judges took trips during the 4 1/2 year period covered by the analysis.

William T. Thurman, chief judge of the state’s bankruptcy court, took three trips between 2009 and 2012. He attended the Economics Institute for Judges program at Northwestern in 2009 and 2012, and the Sir Richard May Seminar on International Law and International Courts organized by the International Judicial Academy at The Hague in the Netherlands in 2010.

Judge Kimball R. Mosier, who also is a bankruptcy judge, attended George Mason University’s Economics Institute for Judges in 2011.

Judge David Nuffer, who was officially elevated to the District Court in May, went to a seminar on “The Rule of Law” in 2010 while he was the chief magistrate judge for the district. It was sponsored by George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center.

Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner attended a seminar titled “Mill on Liberty” in 2009 hosted by George Mason University in San Diego, Calif.

Appellate Judge Michael R. Murphy, one of two Utahns on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, attended a 2010 seminar on human rights in New York organized by The Aspen Institute. He apparently paid his own way, showing up as a funder for the seminar.

­— Brooke Adams

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Leading the list of sponsors of the 109 seminars identified by the Center were the conservative Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, The Searle Freedom Trust, also a supporter of conservative causes, ExxonMobil Corp., Shell Oil Co., pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. and State Farm Insurance Cos. Each were sponsors of 54 seminars.

Other top sponsors included the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (51), Dow Chemical Co. (47), AT&T Inc. (45) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (46), according to the Center’s analysis.

Sponsors pick up the cost of judges’ expenses, which often include air fare, hotel stays and meals. The seminars in the Center’s investigation took place from July 2008 through 2012.

The Center identified 185 federal district and appeals court judges who reported attending one or more of the seminars over the period, according to disclosure forms, or about 11 percent of the more than 1,700 federal judges in the United States.

Two schools — George Mason University, located in Virginia just outside Washington, D.C., and Northwestern University based in Evanston, Ill., — hosted more than two-thirds of the seminars.

Roughly three-fourths of the more than 800 sponsors listed in documents were individuals, including a number of judges who took trips, raising the possibility that they may have offset the cost of the seminars with their donations. Most of the remaining underwriters were companies and foundations.

Determining exactly how much was paid by which sponsor is difficult to determine — amounts are not required to be reported under the disclosure rules.

Judicial conferences are billed as educational retreats intended to improve judges’ understanding of the law and economics. Judges and seminar hosts say the conferences, which feature lectures and panel discussions, provide helpful information that refines their legal expertise.

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But they’ve long drawn scrutiny for how they are funded and organized.

Since the 1990s, critics have complained that many of the privately funded conferences serve state and federal judges a steady dose of free-market, anti-regulation lectures that could influence judges’ rulings from the bench.

Those concerns quieted in 2007, when the Judicial Conference of the United States, a group of senior circuit judges who oversee the U.S. Courts, implemented a policy requiring judges and seminar hosts to disclose information about the conferences.

Well-traveled jurists »The most-traveled judges, according to reports filed online by the judges, were U.S. District Judge Charles R. Wolle of the Southern District of Iowa and Chief Judge Thomas B. Bennett of the Northern District of Alabama Bankruptcy Court. Each reported attending nine seminars.

Wolle is a "senior status" judge, meaning he is semi-retired. He did not respond to requests for comment.

The next-most-traveled judges were:

U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real of the Central District of California and Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals 9th Circuit, covering the Western states, who each took eight trips;

E. Grady Jolly, a federal appeals court judge for the 5th Circuit which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael B. Kaplan of the District of New Jersey, who each took six trips;

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt of the Southern District of Texas, Chief Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Shields of the Southern District of Iowa and senior-status U.S. District Judge Frederic Block of the Eastern District of New York, each of whom took five trips.

O’Scannlain declined to comment for this story. In an email, Kaplan wrote that the "seminars offer a valuable opportunity for new judicial appointees to enhance their knowledge and skills in complex areas of the law," including economics.

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