A decade ago, an environmental watchdog law firm reported a trend in corporate-funded junkets that sent federal judges to free seminars in resort locations, raising ethical concerns about potential conflicts with pending litigation.
Then came the famous duck-hunting trip in 2003 that raised eyebrows when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia joined Vice President Dick Cheney in southern Louisiana for a duck hunt just three weeks after the court agreed to hear a case challenging Cheney's handling of an energy task force.
Although the public outcry over judicial seminars has quieted, problems remain over how to make a public accounting of which judges attend privately funded seminars and who is picking up the bill.
And judicial attendance at private seminars continues to grow. While individual circuit, district and bankruptcy courts post seminar disclosure statements on their individual court Web sites, data are not in one place for better tracking.
A front-burner issue
Congress still has the issue on the front burner, including measures to cap reimbursement of judges who attend the private seminars.
In 2006, then-Chief Judge Joel Flaum of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals warned judges that attendance at private, expenses-paid seminars, lax judicial discipline and flawed financial reporting have contributed to the testiest relations with Congress he had seen in 32 years as a judge. He warned judges, 'You should take as much care with your financial disclosure statements as you do with your tax return.'
By May 2006, Community Rights Counsel, a Washington-based public interest law firm focused on the environment, said the trips had increased by 60% during the prior 10 years, despite criticism among judicial ethicists.
Later the same year, the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking arm of the federal judiciary, enacted rules mandating that judges disclose attendance at privately funded seminars and whether they are reimbursed, and requiring seminar hosts to report the sources of funding. The rules also required courts to employ financial conflict-checking software.
Today, the seminar attendance has improved, according to Peter Geddes, executive vice president of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) in Bozeman, Mont. 'We saw a slight increase in the number of judges [attending] last year. They see [disclosure] as a good housekeeping seal of approval,' Geddes said.
Geddes' group, one of hundreds of both private and public educational programs for judges, obtained 20% of its operational funding from Exxon Mobil Corp., General Electric Corp. and Deere & Co. He said the money to reimburse judges' travel comes not from the corporations but from dozens of 'deadman foundations,' ones in which the principal funder is deceased, such as the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust in Vancouver, Wash.
At least one ruling backs the notion that the free trips are not a conflict. A 2005 misconduct complaint against 6th Circuit Chief Judge Danny J. Boggs, a member of FREE's board of directors, was tossed out. Chief Judge James B. Loken of the 8th Circuit, who issued the ruling, wrote: 'Judges must remain impartial, but impartiality should not mean isolation from civic life,' In re Complaint of Judicial Misconduct, No. 04-6-372-17.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported 154 judges attended 52 privately sponsored seminars in 2007 on its Web site and provided the names of dozens of sponsors. But despite the disclosures, Congress is not done with the issue. On Feb. 5, the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to a 29% judicial pay raise, but only if the measure included limits on judicial gifts and seminar reimbursements. For privately funded junkets, reimbursement would be capped at $2,000 per trip, with a $20,000 annual limit. Trips sponsored by bar associations, judicial groups or the government would be exempt.
Senators Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., sponsored the caps, and the measure must be approved by the Senate and reconciled with the House version.
Dick Carelli, spokesman for the Judicial Conference, said judges are still allowed to attend seminars as long as they adhere to disclosure requirements. He declined to comment on the Feingold/Kyl proposal.