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Buying influence? Corporations, conservative nonprofits sponsor seminars for judges
Investigation » Funding raises questions about educational trips and conflicts of interest.

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Similar legislation failed again in 2003.

In 2007, the Judicial Conference implemented a policy designed to provide "greater transparency" by setting up disclosure requirements for both judges and seminar hosts.

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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"Instead of banning anything," says Geyh, the policy "was a way to mollify those who recognized the perception problem without causing the ones who treat [the conferences] as a First Amendment issue to go ballistic."

Buying influence? » Even with the new policy, the seminars still have critics.

"These seminars are taking place because large corporate interests are hoping to influence the outcome of cases involving themselves or like-minded entities," says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal organization that first raised concerns about judicial education conferences in a 1993 report titled "Justice for Sale."

Russell Wheeler, former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center, an education and research agency for the federal courts, says it’s possible that funders could be truly dedicated to improving judges’ understanding of the law.

But, he says, "You’ve got to be pretty naïve to believe that."

"It’s the funders that create the problem," says Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor who specializes in legal ethics. "The money comes from interests that have matters before the courts, and they’d like to have those matters settled in their favor."

Many of the seminars are conservative in nature, especially those hosted by George Mason. But there are a few exceptions. A June 2010 conference sponsored by the Open Society Institute, a foundation founded by liberal investor George Soros, focused mainly on human rights law.

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(The Center for Public Integrity has received funding from Soros’ Open Society Foundations.)

Events hosted by the Sedona Conference, a nonprofit whose seminars address legal issues like antitrust law and intellectual property, have been funded primarily by law firms.

Speaking from the right » According to The Center for Public Integrity’s analysis, the person who spoke at more judicial conferences than any other was Butler, a professor and prominent conservative formerly of Northwestern and now executive director of George Mason’s Law & Economics Center.

He has taught judicial seminar courses with titles like "Economic Thinking" and "Economics of Insurance." A former Republican candidate for Congress — he lost a 1992 bid — Butler was a "Koch Distinguished Professor of Law and Economics" at the University of Kansas.

Butler’s resume cites his "professional affiliations" with the conservative Federalist Society and the Mont Pelerin Society, which decries society’s loss of freedoms "fostered by a decline of belief in private property and the competitive market."

Butler declined to be interviewed for this story. In response to emailed questions about George Mason’s judicial seminars, he wrote, "You seem to have a well-established theme to your story, accordingly we don’t see any advantage in collaborating with you."

Daniel Polsby, dean of the George Mason University School of Law, also declined to answer questions for this story other than to say: "We’re very proud of the activities and programs of the Law & Economics Center" via email.

Another frequent seminar instructor is Terry L. Anderson, president of the Property and Environment Research Center, a conservative think tank "dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets."

Anderson, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, has regularly led "Free Market Environmentalism" lectures at conferences hosted by both George Mason and Northwestern.

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