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Ethics Limits on Judicial Seminars Must Apply to All

Legal Times
August 22, 2005
Timothy J. Dowling

To the Editor:

In his defense of the travel gifts to judges associated with the seminars hosted by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (“Drawing the Ethical Line,” August 15, 2005, Page 62), Chief Judge Danny J. Boggs denounces as “wildly misleading” the suggestion that corporations play a significant role in these seminars. But FREE’s website shows that numerous corporate officials have lectured federal judges at its seminars -- including representatives from Texaco, Georgia-Pacific, Caterpillar, Proctor & Gamble, General Motors, and Temple-Inland -- all of which have given FREE financial support.

Chief Judge Boggs does not acknowledge this corporate influence, notwithstanding the resulting ethical conflicts. For example, when Texaco’s former CEO delivered a lecture criticizing environmental regulation, the audience included the trial judge in a one billion dollar contamination case against Texaco, which understandably left the plaintiffs feeling “outraged” and “disadvantaged.”

Chief Judge Boggs asserts that the specific funding for free’s seminars comes from foundations, but these sources have included at least one foundation openly controlled by corporate interests. Moreover, FREE seminar funders also finance litigation campaigns against environmental protections and other regulations. It is little wonder FREE prides itself on promoting an anti-regulatory agenda.

Chief Judge Boggs spends considerable rhetorical energy arguing that FREE’s accommodations are not “plush.” The issue is not comfort level, however, but the substantial size of the travel gifts that attend these seminars, gifts that federal attorneys are prohibited from personally accepting. Why should federal judges, who also are public servants, be treated differently?

Finally, Chief Judge Boggs argues that “everybody does it,” citing judicial seminars sponsored by law schools, bar associations, and others. He concludes that an “even-handed” ethics rule would apply to everyone: left, right, and center. We agree. And that is precisely the approach we support through proposed legislation that would apply to all seminar hosts, regardless of philosophical bent.

The reforms we endorse would increase public funding for judicial education, funding that would be used to cover the judges’ travel expenses associated with educational seminars, thereby removing the ethical taint. The seminars would be reviewed by the Federal Judicial Center or some comparable judicial body to ensure they pose no conflicts and are in the public interest, a much-needed ethics screen similar to the one used by federal attorneys.

If his honor would like to join us in promoting these evenhanded reforms, we would welcome his support.


Timothy J. Dowling

Timothy J. Dowling is chief counsel of Community Rights Counsel, a Washington, D.C.-based public-interest law firm that assists state and local officials in defending environmental laws and other community protections. The views expressed here are his own.

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