Despite negative publicity about "junkets for judges" in recent years, a watchdog group reports today that more federal judges than ever are taking subsidized trips.
Community Rights Counsel, which first detailed what it describes as judges' "corporate junketing" eight years ago, says data from 2002 to 2004 indicate a 60 percent increase in questionable trips taken by judges over a similar period 10 years before.
Judges' publicly available financial disclosure forms indicate that from 2002 to 2004 (the last year available) federal judges took an average of 110 trips per year sponsored by the "big three" — three organizations that, according to the CRC, "share a similar libertarian/pro-big corporation ideology." Those organizations are the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), George Mason University's Law and Economics Center, and the Liberty Fund. The organizations funded an average of 68 reported trips by judges annually from 1993 to 1995, according to the report.
Doug Kendall, the CRC's executive director, says not all judges take trips and not all trips are suspect. "Some judges never let a private interest pay for their travel," he says. "Most limit their reimbursed travel to speaking engagements and other activities that improve the legal system or the administration of justice."
But the three organizations CRC singles out have an agenda that goes beyond education and is the equivalent of lobbying, Kendall contends.
FREE, for example, describes itself on its Web site as "an organization devoted to social change that harmonizes environmental quality with responsible liberty and economic progress."
In 2002, according to the CRC report, FREE hosted a six-day judicial seminar in Montana on "the ecology, economics and ethics of climate change." Among those attending were Chief Judge Douglas Ginsburg and Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Last year, the report notes, Sentelle was the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that rejected a plea by 12 states seeking stronger enforcement of the Clean Air Act to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, from new vehicles. An appeal in the case, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, is pending before the Supreme Court.
Pete Geddes, executive director of the Montana-based FREE, says the implications of the CRC's report are absurd: "Are you seriously telling me that Judge Sentelle comes out here for a week and runs back to D.C. and changes his mind on a case?" The CRC, he says, seems to think that "we give the judges a horsy ride and implant the microchip" that tells them how to vote.
On the contrary, says Geddes, top-flight, nonpartisan speakers, including Nobel Prize winners, are recruited to give judges the equivalent of continuing legal education courses on cutting-edge economic and environmental issues. The organization has also disclosed its funding sources and other relevant information on its Web site and encourages judges to fully disclose their participation, he says.
The CRC report also singles out Loren Smith, senior judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, as the top "junketing judge" in recent years, having accepted reimbursement for 10 trips sponsored by the "big three" between 2002 and 2004. Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones took seven trips, as did Suzanne Condon, a judge on the District Court in Northern Illinois.
Neither Sentelle nor Smith could be reached for comment on the report.
Sporadic efforts to limit judicial trips have been launched by Congress in recent years but have been met by strong opposition from the judiciary. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a bill in January that would bar federal judges from receiving subsidies to attend most private seminars and would establish a government fund to pay for judicial education.
During confirmation hearings last fall, Leahy asked chief justice nominee John Roberts Jr. about privately funded trips for judges. Roberts said he would look at the issue, adding that "special interests should not be permitted to lobby federal judges."