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Watchdog catalogs judge junkets


Daily Business Review
Julie Kay
May 01, 2006

Senior U.S. District Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp spoke at a seminar in Winter Park, Colo., organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a self-described "Christ-centered" legal group committed to fighting for "religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and traditional family values."

The West Palm Beach-based judge accepted airfare, meals and lodging from the group to attend the seminar in 2002.

The Alliance Defense Fund has filed litigation to block same-sex marriage, abortions and public funding for abortions, physician-assisted suicide, and birth control and promoting the teaching of the theory of intelligent design. These are issues on which the federal courts have heard and will continue to hear cases.

Ryskamp, who did not return calls for comment, is hardly the only federal judge who has accepted free resort trips in recent years to participate in judicial education programs. Critics say such privately sponsored trips to attend seminars - some of which are ideologically oriented - jeopardize the impartiality and appearance of impartiality of the federal judiciary.

According to a study released Friday by the Community Rights Counsel, a liberal Washington, D.C.-based judicial watchdog group, between 2002 and

2004 160 federal judges across the country took a total of 331 privately funded junkets. The information was drawn from judges' financial disclosures as well as the Web site of one of the biggest trip sponsors, the Foundation for Economics and the Environment.

"Despite eight years of criticism, junkets for judges increased by 62 percent over the previous two years," said CRC executive director Doug Kendall. "The practice is tarnishing the reputation of the entire federal judiciary even though only a relatively small percentage of judges take junkets."

Compared with several years ago, however, many fewer Southern District of Florida judges took part in privately funded seminar trips. According to CRC's new report, Judges Marcia Cooke and Ursula Ungaro-Benages were the only other South Florida federal judges who accepted free trips between 2002 and 2004.

Unlike Ryskamp's, their trips, however, were not singled out as objectionable by the CRC, which makes a distinction between ethically acceptable trips taken for legal education and ideologically oriented junkets offered by corporate-backed groups at swank resorts.

But judges sitting on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta and Miami were frenetic free travelers during the 2002-2004 period.

Those who took subsidized trips in that period included Stanley Birch, Gerald Tjoflat, Phyllis Kravitch, Peter Fay, William H. Pryor Jr., Charles R. Wilson, Rosemary Barkett and James Hancock.

Judge Tjoflat was singled out by CRC for failing to disclose on the mandatory financial disclosure form a trip he took in 2002 with the Bozeman, Mont.-based Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, to Gallatin Gateway, Mont. CRC learned that Tjoflat took the trip because he was listed on an attendance sheet on FREE's Internet site. Tjoflat did not return calls for comment.

Junkets for federal judges often are sponsored by large corporations, business-funded organizations, liberal groups or socially conservative groups to promote particular legal theories and outlooks.

In 2003, for example, FREE held a conference for federal judges in which the judges were told there is a "deep uncertainty" about global warming and that judges should focus on economic growth rather than combating global warming. These junkets often are held at swank resorts in Arizona, Colorado, and other Meccas for golf, skiing and other outdoor activities.

The value of the trips can exceed $10,000, which is a lot of money for judges. Federal district judges earn $165,000 a year, while appellate judges make $175,000.

Congressional Democrats and legal ethics experts have criticized such privately subsidized seminar trips. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former prosecutor, has proposed a bill to prohibit federal judges from accepting subsidized trips offered by private groups. Judges only would be allowed to accept free trips for conferences and speaking engagements held on the campuses of accredited universities and law schools.

Leahy had proposed a similar bill in 2003 but pulled it after representatives of the Judicial Conference vowed to stop taking the junkets. This time, he may have a powerful ally. At his confirmation hearing, now-Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. raised concern about the privately funded trips and said special interests should not be permitted to lobby federal judges.

Monroe Freedman, a Hofstra University law professor who is an authority on legal ethics, said he is most concerned about judges going to posh conferences paid for by groups or corporations that have business before those particular judges.

"I'm particularly concerned about one-sided arguments on pending cases,"

he said. "There is an opportunity for ex parte conversations with judges in these informal settings."

But Judge Birch defended the practice of accepting trips, no matter who the sponsors are. He called criticisms "a tempest in a teapot" created by the news media.

"It's up to the individual judge to make that decision," Birch said in an interview. "Judges are pretty intelligent folks who can figure out if they're being pandered to. They're not going to hoodwink judges. We didn't fall off a turnip truck."

'Educational seminars'

Senior Judge Ryskamp accepted trips from several different conservative groups. In 2002, in addition to the Alliance Defense Fund engagement, he traveled to the George Mason University Law and Economics Center for an "educational seminar" in Winston-Salem, N.C. He attended another seminar from the same group offered in Tucson, in 2003 and one in La Jolla, Calif. in 2004.

The CRC calls the George Mason Law and Economic Center seminars one of their "top three" most objectionable seminar sponsors. Those sessions are funded by corporations seeking to lobby judges and are held at resorts.

The other two seminar programs deemed most problematic by CRC are those organized by FREE and the Indiana-based Liberty Fund. All three offer a "libertarian, pro-big corporation" ideology, according to CRC.

Another Southern District of Florida judge who accepted trips was Marcia Cooke in Miami. She was a seminar instructor at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy at Hofstra University in 2004. She also spoke to the Philadelphia Bar Association's Just the Beginning Foundation, a group dedicated to bringing more minorities into the legal profession, also in 2004.

Kendall said neither of Judge Cooke's trips were "problematic." Cooke did not return calls for comment.

In 2004, Judge Ungaro-Benages accepted a trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, from a group called the Foundation for Law and Science Center to attend a seminar for judges on "Training on Post-Daubert Evidence."

The topic relates to standards for expert witnesses. Business groups often decry expert witnesses for plaintiffs who rely on so-called junk science. No information about that foundation was immediately available.

Ungaro-Benages did not return calls for comment.

Barkett's trips

Among 11th U.S. Circuit judges, Judge Barkett was one of the biggest recipients of free trips, according to the CRC.

In 2002 alone, she took trips to Steamboat Springs for an Environmental Litigation Seminar sponsored by the ABA; to Hilton Head, S.C., for an appellate judges conference sponsored by the ABA; to Aspen, Colo., for Justice and Society Seminar sponsored by the Aspen Institute; and to New York City for an appellate judges seminar sponsored by New York University.

In 2003, Barkett took her longest trip - a 17-day, all-expenses paid trip to Russia sponsored by a Washington, D.C., organization called Chemonics International. In an interview, Barkett said she was invited to Russia to speak on a panel to judicial leaders on how to set up a judicial nominating process as well as a judicial oversight group.

Both Judges Tjoflat and Birch took trips in 2003 sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers to attend leadership conferences. Tjoflat went to one in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Birch attended one in Orlando. Stephen Silber, a spokesman for the giant accounting firm, said he did not know why the firm was hosting judges at conferences.

 But in an interview, Judge Birch said he was invited to speak at the conference as an intellectual property expert who has written books on the subject. "They have a group that does support for law firms," he said. "They involve litigators from around the country. There were two other judges on the panel."

 Birch rejected the idea that such conferences are ideologically slanted.

"That's in the eye of the beholder," he said. "They usually try to bring in speakers on both sides of the issue and let people decide what they want to think. That's what we do in court."

 Senior U.S. District Judge Shelby Highsmith in Miami takes a different position. He said he's refused to ever take a free trip while serving as a judge to avoid "the appearance of impropriety." Now, he said, he rarely receives invitations.

One ethical problem, he said, is that judges are receiving something of value from a company or group that may later have a case or issue before them. "You never know what's going to come before you in the future," he said.

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