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Guess Who’s Paying for Judicial Seminars?

A new report from the Center for Public Integrity reveals nearly 200 judges attended seminars sponsored by foundations and multinational corporations — groups who are also frequent litigants in federal courts.

March 28, 2013

Today, the Center for Public Integrity released a report and database on federal judicial travel finding that “between July 2008 and 2012, about 185 federal judges attended more than 100 judicial education seminars, sponsored by conservative foundations and multinational corporations like ExxonMobil, Pfizer and BP.” Sponsors of legal education seminars may legally pay the costs of judges’ airfare, lodging, and meals.  Many of these corporate sponsors, however, are also frequent litigants in federal courts.

Judicial education is important and valuable. Indeed, canons governing judicial conduct, which ban gifts to judges, generally provide exceptions from the gift bans for accepting travel costs for legitimately educational events. Such seminars allow federal judges to stay abreast of legal developments and debate. However, there is legitimate cause for concern about attempts to influence judges improperly.

This concern is heightened when the educational events are designed to promote particular judicial ideologies that would benefit the sponsors. As the report points out, the vast majority of legal education seminars were sponsored by conservative businesses and trade groups that in fact stand to benefit from pro-business rulings.

As the United States Supreme Court has made clear, all litigants possess a core due process right to a judge who is not only fair and unbiased, but also free from the appearance of impropriety. And the public’s confidence in a fair and impartial judiciary is an interest of the highest order. Accordingly, even if educational seminars do not directly influence a judge’s decision-making, judges should take care to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

The disclosure requirements promulgated by the 2007 Judicial Conference policy on judges’ attendance at privately funded educational programs are one protection against attempts to buy influence. These require disclosure by the event sponsor of the presentation topics and speakers, and the sources of funding for the sponsor.  According to the Center for Public Integrity’s report, at least one major organizer of judicial conferences may be seeking to evade full disclosure.

In order to comply with their ethical obligations, it is imperative that judges verify that the sponsors of judicial education programs comply with their disclosure obligations.  The public must know which individuals, corporations, and foundations are paying for judicial education events in order to maintain the federal judiciary’s reputation as unbiased and impartial.

Photo by 401(K) 2013.