Chief Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ranks fourth on a list of judges who accept free trips sponsored by conservative interest groups and corporations, according to a report by an environmental law group.
And the 5th Circuit, which hears federal appeals from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, ranks No. 1 for such trips among the 13 U.S. circuit courts, according to the report by the Washington-based Community Rights Counsel.
Many judges defend the trips as harmless and educational, but they have been criticized by public interest groups, and a bill before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee would regulate them. CRC ethics complaints forced three judges to resign last year from the board of a group that provides such trips.
Jones accepted five trips sponsored by two conservative groups from 2002 through 2004, sharing fourth place in the CRC ranking with two judges on the U.S. Court of International Trade.
Two other 5th Circuit judges ranked in the top 20: Judge William Davis, No. 10 on the list, and Judge E. Grady Jolly, No. 13.
The 17 judges on that court took 18 free trips over the three years. Ranking second was the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Court in Washington, D.C., whose judges took 13 trips.
Jones, whose office is in Houston, defended the trips as purely educational. "There is a real fallacy in what the CRC is suggesting," she said.
Trips on the rise
The report counted an average 110 junkets a year among 160 district and circuit judges nationwide 2002-2004. The average was 70 per year in the mid-1990s when CRC began tracking. No U.S. Supreme Court justice accepted free trips from the top three groups singled out by CRC.
Less than half of federal judges accept the free trips and some never accept free travel from privately funded organizations, the report says.
"These trips take place at resorts and provide the judge, and frequently the judge's spouse, plenty of time for golfing and other recreation activities," the CRC reported. The organizations' tax returns show the junkets cost as much as $10,000, the CRC says. The report states that three conservative organizations led in sponsoring trips designed to influence judges toward adopting conservative views of jurisprudence.
The "big three" singled out by the CRC are the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, or FREE; George Mason University's Law & Economics Center, or LEC; and the Liberty Fund.
All three are funded by corporations and conservative foundations. FREE lists Exxon Mobil, GE Fund and Georgia-Pacific Corp. among its corporate donors and the Castle Rock Foundation and Earhart Foundation among foundation donors.
The LEC doesn't make its donors public, but the George Mason University Foundation Web site lists Exxon Mobil Corp. and conservative foundations such as the Sarah Scaife Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation and Earhart Foundation.
The Liberty Fund is funded primarily through a foundation established by the late Indianapolis industrialist Pierre F. Goodrich, a Libertarian, to spread his views about free enterprise and limited government.
Doug Kendall, CRC executive director, charged that "corporate front groups like FREE bring judges to resorts and teach them about hot-button legal topics in a way that advances the interest of their corporate funders."
Kendall said the CRC began tracking judicial junkets when it was helping local governments defend against legal challenges to environmental regulations. CRC discovered that FREE was playing host to judges who were hearing the cases, he said.
"We're filing briefs and they are out there taking judges to resorts and telling them in that context why we are wrong," Kendall said.
Three federal judges resigned from FREE's board last year after CRC filed a complaint against them and a fourth judge, who did not resign.
The report is not targeting the "big three" because of their conservative views, Kendall said.
"We talk about the 'big three' because they are the groups that host the most trips, not because of their perspective," Kendall said. He said no "left-of-center equivalent" offers as many judicial junkets.
CRC data come from the judges' disclosure forms and include every group listed by the judges, Kendall said. Of the groups listed as providing junkets, The Aspen Institute bears the closest resemblance to a liberal sponsor, he said. But Aspen sponsored eight trips for judges in 2004, compared with 91 by the LEC and 26 by FREE, according to the CRC database.
Excursions called academic
Jones accepted one trip to a FREE seminar and four trips to George Mason seminars from 2002 through 2004, according to CRC data.
Jones and LEC director Frank Buckley said the programs were academic rather than ideological.
"We want them to encounter the philosophical underpinnings of our judicial system," Buckley said.
Jones, who is on the George Mason LEC judicial advisory board, said FREE recently conducted seminars on environmental policy, national terrorism and economics.
"They take a very global perspective," she said. "If you want to call that ideologically driven, I disagree."
"You can say that, when you show a judge that you are trying to load his or her brain with an idea that you are trying to poison their brain, but it's not true," Jones said. "To me, it's a gift of the mind."
Kendall countered that FREE and the LEC trips are aimed specifically at influencing judicial thought. The CRC report cites an LEC newsletter boasting that judges reported the programs "totally altered their frame of reference for cases involving economic issues."
In 1999 U.S. District Judge Royal Ferguson of the Western District of Texas recused himself from a case involving a subsidiary of FREE contributor Koch Industries Inc. after attending a FREE seminar. He cited a law requiring a judge to disqualify himself "in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has introduced a bill that would require judges to learn the private sponsors of junkets and make them public. The bill is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Jones said the Judicial Council of the United States, which oversees the federal judiciary, opposes the bill.