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CRC In The News


Getting the judges' ear on the taxpayers' dime



Brian Dickerson
Detroit Free Press

May 17, 2006

Schoolchildren aren't the only folks Michigan taxpayers pay to educate.

Each year, all of the state's 617 judges participate in two days of seminars designed to sharpen their legal skills. Attendance is compulsory; jurists who play hooky face disciplinary action unless their absence is excused in advance.

So what, exactly, did judges attending this week's annual judicial conference at Grand Rapids' Amway Grand Plaza Hotel learn?

Most of the electives offered at the conference, which concluded Tuesday, addressed recent developments in Michigan law. Workshops included "Tips for Handling Custody and Domestic Relations Proceedings," "Sentencing Law Update" and two investment seminars for judges contemplating retirement.

But the most striking thing was that six of the 30 workshops were sponsored by the Law & Economics Center (LEC), a nonprofit organization whose antiregulatory, market-oriented seminars for judges have been the object of controversy since a 2001 expose by the ABC News show "20/20."

Loosely affiliated with the George Mason University Law School in Arlington, Va., the LEC is funded largely by Fortune 500 corporations and conservative philanthropists such as Richard Mellon Scaife, a Republican billionaire best known for financing investigations into Bill Clinton's personal life.

The LEC has come under fire for sponsoring all-expenses-paid judicial junkets at luxurious resorts, where judges are exposed to the think tank's pro-business take on liability reform and environmental regulation between rounds of golf and lavish dinners.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, an enthusiastic advocate of the LEC's programs, has attempted to mitigate some of the controversy by assuring that Michigan taxpayers, rather than corporate sponsors, paid the freight for Michigan judges' exposure to LEC gospel.

Nor can the center's Michigan offerings be dismissed as right-wing propaganda. One LEC workshop, entitled "Voodoo Science," featured Richard Park, a physicist known for debunking intelligent design. Another explained "how economists view crime as a cost-benefit decision for the criminal."

But Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, an environmental watchdog group in Washington, D.C., echoes a legion of legal ethicists who criticize the LEC's legal seminars.

"The problem is that judicial education is being used as an ideological weapon and that corporations involved in controversies before the courts are paying for it," Kendall told me.

None of the judges I spoke to Tuesday would criticize this year's judicial conference offerings on the record. But several conferees distributed a recent USA Today editorial critical of the LEC's judicial junkets and the judges who participate in them.

Of course, maybe they're just annoyed that their own exposure to LEC dogma took place in a setting as prosaic as Grand Rapids. After all, if a bunch of conservative ideologues want to bend your ear, shouldn't you at least get to listen on a golf course in Laguna Beach?

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