WASHINGTON - A public-interest law firm that has spearheaded criticism of judicial education junkets accused the federal judiciary Wednesday of dragging its feet on implementing a new full-disclosure policy intended to address complaints about judges attending seminars partly funded by corporations.
The firm, Washington-based Community Rights Counsel, also singled out 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld, calling on him to resign from the board of a legal education group that has received financial support from ExxonMobil Corp.
In December, Kleinfeld was part of a 2-1 majority on a 9th Circuit panel that cut in half a $5 billion punitive-damages award against Exxon for the 1989 Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.
Kleinfeld told the Daily Journal in August that he had been unaware, and would have preferred not to know, that Exxon funded the group, the Law and Economics Center, based at Virginia's George Mason University.
Citing the Daily Journal story during a press conference Wednesday, Douglas T. Kendall, executive director of Community Rights Counsel, said, "This ignorance defense is precisely what the new disclosure rules were implemented to combat."
Kendall's biggest target, however, was not Kleinfeld but the policymakers for the federal judiciary.
In September, the U.S. Judicial Conference, headed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., adopted a policy that said judges could not accept travel, food, lodging or any reimbursement for a privately sponsored seminar unless the organization hosting the event publicly disclosed all its sources of financial support.
The policy also required judges to disclose their attendance at seminars no later than 30 days after the events ended. Those disclosures are to be posted on court Web sites.
Kendall said that the judiciary's policy looked good on paper but that the early implementation had been problematic.
"They're slow-walking the requirements of the new policy, withholding information that is supposed to be made public and sending the judges a signal that it's business as usual for judicial junkets," he said.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Kendall said, had refused to make public the financial information that "junketing organizations" have disclosed to the judiciary, despite a clear written policy indicating that the courts would post the information "promptly" on the Internet.
He also criticized the judiciary for creating a loophole in its new disclosure requirements for judges.
Under the policy, judges who attend private seminars in 2007 are not subject to the new requirements if they were invited to the seminars in 2006, before the new requirements took effect.
That loophole, Kendall said, would delay disclosures by months, if not years.
Not a single judicial trip has been disclosed in the 80 days since the policy went into effect on New Year's Day, he said.
Kendall, who has been tracking seminars for more than a decade, said judges usually take seminar-sponsored trips in January and February. He said he did not know whether judges had taken any such trips this year.
Just hours after Kendall's criticism, the judiciary announced that it was changing course on one of the issues he raised.
Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the administrative office, said the judiciary soon would begin posting on the Internet information submitted by private groups about their financial supporters for upcoming seminars.
Asked about the alleged loophole for seminar invitations judges received before 2007, Carelli said there had to be some defined date on which the new requirements took effect.
"There had to be a start date, so the start date was January 1st," he said. Kendall's critique, he said, was "somewhat premature."
"I am sure there will be public announcements this year of judges who attended these seminars," he said.
All federal judges, he said, now have access to information about who sponsors the seminars.
Carelli provided the Daily Journal with documents submitted by organizations that have filed disclosures with the judiciary since the new policy took effect.
Organizations planning to hold upcoming seminars include the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, a group that promotes property rights and a free-market approach to environmentalism.
The group Kleinfeld is associated with, George Mason's Law and Economics Center, also submitted disclosure forms to the judiciary.
The disclosures, however, suggest that, in some cases, corporate connections, such as ExxonMobil's link to the George Mason center, may not be apparent from forms explaining the seminars.
For example, the Law and Economics Center listed only itself as the funding source for its upcoming events.
George Mason University law professor Francis Buckley, who runs the center, said officials at the judiciary's administrative office instructed him to fill out the forms that way. Buckley said he submitted the group's list of general donors separately. He also said the donors were listed on his Web site.
Under the judiciary's policy, organizations are required to list outside supporters if those supporters provided money specifically for a seminar or specifically for the education of judges.
But groups are not required to list outside supporters that donated money only to the organizations' general funds.
Buckley said the center has not yet hosted any seminars this year.
As for Kleinfeld, Kendall said his group was not questioning the judge's integrity or suggesting that his participation in trips sponsored by Buckley's organization affected his judgment in the Exxon Valdez case.
But, Kendall said, "given the totality of the circumstances," Kleinfeld should resign from the center's board of advisers.
Kleinfeld could not be reached for comment.
Daily Journal staff writer Lawrence Hurley contributed to this report.