Every day attorneys and homeowners are asking – “What’s wrong with these judges?! They are ignoring the Rule of Law. It’s as if they are on the take…” Well, now you know… And who better but corporate America at brainwashing – they even patent it!
Corporations, pro-business nonprofits foot bill for judicial seminars – George Mason University top host of events
By Chris Young,
American University Fellow for The Center for Public Integrity
Conservative foundations, multinational oil companies and a prescription drug maker were the most frequent sponsors of more than 100 expense-paid educational seminars attended by federal judges over a 4 1/2-year period, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.
Among the seminar titles were “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism,” “Corporations and the Limits of Criminal Law” and “Terrorism, Climate & Central Planning: Challenges to Liberty & the Rule of Law.”
Leading the list of sponsors of the 109 seminars identified by the Center were the conservative Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, The Searle Freedom Trust, also a supporter of conservative causes, ExxonMobil Corp., Shell Oil Co., pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. and State Farm Insurance Cos. Each were sponsors of 54 seminars.
Other top sponsors included the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (51), Dow Chemical Co. (47), AT&T Inc. (45) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (46), according to the Center’s analysis.
Sponsors pick up the cost of judges’ expenses, which often include air fare, hotel stays and meals. The seminars in the Center’s investigation took place from July 2008 through 2012.
The Center identified 185 federal district and appeals court judges who reported attending one or more of the seminars over the period, according to disclosure forms, or about 11 percent of the more than 1,700 federal judges in the United States.
Roughly three-fourths of the more than 800 sponsors listed in documents were individuals, including a number of judges who took trips, raising the possibility that they may have offset the cost of the sponsorships with their donations. Most of the remaining underwriters were companies and foundations.
Determining exactly how much was paid by which sponsor is difficult to determine — amounts are not required to be reported under the disclosure rules.
Judicial conferences are billed as educational retreats intended to improve judges’ understanding of the law and economics. Judges and seminar hosts say the conferences, which feature lectures and panel discussions, provide helpful information that refines their legal expertise.
But they’ve long drawn scrutiny for how they are funded and organized.
Since the 1990s, critics have complained that many of the privately funded conferences serve state and federal judges a steady dose of free-market, anti-regulation lectures that could influence judges’ rulings from the bench.
Those concerns quieted in 2007, when the Judicial Conference of the United States, a group of senior circuit judges who oversee the U.S. Courts, implemented a policy requiring judges and seminar hosts to disclose information about the conferences.
The most-traveled judges, according to reports filed online by the judges, were U.S. District Judge Charles R. Wolle of the Southern District of Iowa and Chief Judge Thomas B. Bennett of the Northern District of Alabama Bankruptcy Court. Each reported attending nine seminars. [DC Ed. – Look at the number of Reagan and Bush appointees]
Wolle is a “senior status” judge, meaning he is semi-retired. He did not respond to requests for comment.
The next-most-traveled judges were:
- U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real of the Central District of California and Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals 9th Circuit, covering the Western states, who each took eight trips; [DC Ed: Surprised? Nah.]
- E. Grady Jolly, a federal appeals court judge for the 5th Circuit which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael B. Kaplan of the District of New Jersey, who each took six trips;
- U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt of the Southern District of Texas, Chief Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Shields of the Southern District of Iowa and senior-status U.S. District Judge Frederic Block of the Eastern District of New York, each of whom took five trips.
O’Scannlain declined to comment for this story. In an email, Kaplan wrote that the “seminars offer a valuable opportunity for new judicial appointees to enhance their knowledge and skills in complex areas of the law,” including economics.
Wolle, Real and O’Scannlain are all listed as seminar sponsors, though records do not indicate how much they contributed.
The Center identified instances where judges who attended seminars underwritten by certain firms and trade groups later issued rulings in the funders’ favor.
EPA loses case
In April 2009, for example, Jolly traveled to Northwestern University to attend the “Criminalization of Corporate Conduct” seminar sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 13 other funders.
Last August, Jolly wrote the majority 2-1 opinion declaring that the Environmental Protection Agency broke the law when it rejected a Texas emissions cap generally supported by the fossil fuels industry.
Jolly, who did not respond to requests for comment, sided with two of the petitioners in the suit — the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber.
Charles Geyh, an Indiana University law professor who specializes in judicial ethics, is skeptical that rulings are directly influenced by corporate sponsors of seminars, but noted, “in a cynic’s view that would smack of corruption.”
“Even if it has no effect in terms of the decisions judges make, the perception of influence matters a great deal,” he says. “It looks as if [corporations] are buying influence, even if it’s not true.”
Another attendee of the 2009 “Criminalization of Corporate Conduct” seminar was U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier, the Eastern District of Louisiana jurist presiding over a high-profile BP civil trial, which is being held without a jury in New Orleans.
Barbier is in charge of considering whether BP owes billions of dollars in fines for gross negligence leading to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and spill. The disaster killed 11 people and contaminated a large swath of the Gulf Coast.
In 2011, Barbier dismissed a wrongful-death claim in a suit brought against ExxonMobil and Chevron USA by the widow of a worker who was exposed to radioactive materials found on the companies’ equipment.
Barbier’s ruling in favor of the oil companies came two years after he attended the corporate conduct seminar, funded in part by ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, according to documents. The judge did not respond to requests for comment.
George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center hosted 45 seminars while [Chicago’s] Northwestern University’s Judicial Education Program hosted 29. A total of 136 federal judges reported attending conferences conducted by the schools during the 4 1/2-year period analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.
The remaining top five conference hosts, including The Sedona Conference and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), collectively organized 28 conferences.
The Koch Foundation and The Searle Freedom Trust supported most of the conferences organized by George Mason and Northwestern. The energy industry was a sponsor in roughly three-fourths of the conferences hosted by Northwestern.
Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, major supporters of conservative causes, and their foundations have given millions to George Mason University. As the Center recently reported, the George Mason University Foundation received $4.4 million in 2011 from the Charles Koch Foundation, making up 15 percent of its revenue that year.
The school is the top recipient of Koch foundation money since 1985. George Mason also houses several free market and libertarian research centers, including the Institute for Humane Studies, which received $3.7 million from the Koch foundations, and the Mercatus Center, whose board of directors includes Charles Koch.
Officials from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation did not return phone calls seeking comment for this report.
The Judicial Conference disclosure policy doesn’t require seminar hosts to reveal how much donors contribute to conferences. But corporate-giving reports and nonprofit tax records shed some light on the costs.
Oil industry support
In 2011, for example, ExxonMobil reported giving $20,000 to George Mason specifically for its judicial training program. The oil company gave an additional $30,000 to the university’s Law & Economics Center, which hosts the conferences. Between 2003 and 2007, the ExxonMobil Foundation gave the think tank $150,000.
ExxonMobil officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Another seminar funder, Donors Trust, gave George Mason’s Law & Economics Center nearly $450,000 in general support in 2010. As the Center reported, Donors Trust helps conservative foundations and individuals give money anonymously to nonprofits that may take controversial positions.
A representative of Donors Trust declined to comment for this story.
The Searle Freedom Trust, a foundation advocating “economic liberty” which regularly donates to conservative groups like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, contributed a combined $400,000 to George Mason’s judicial education programs in 2010 and 2011.
The school conducted conferences on antitrust law as well as “Corporations and the Limits of Criminal Law,” both funded by AT&T, BB&T, BP America, Cigna, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, FedEx Corp. and others.
“The Moral Foundations of Capitalism” was funded by the same group, and was the most popular George Mason conference, drawing at least 10 federal judges.
BP spokesman Scott Dean says the company has no record of ever directly contributing to the seminars but he did say BP gave the law school and the Law & Economics Center more than $37,000 between 2001 and 2008.
Seminars at Northwestern are hosted by the school’s Searle Center on Law, Regulation, and Economic Growth. The think tank, according to its website, was founded in 2006 thanks to a “generous grant” from Daniel C. Searle, the late pharmaceutical industry executive.
In 2009, the foundation gave $200,000 to Northwestern’s Searle Center for its judicial education program.
Another Northwestern seminar funder, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation — a major supporter of conservative organizations, including the Heritage Foundation — gave $210,000 to the Searle Center between 2008 and 2010.
Records show corporate sponsorship at Northwestern was highest from 2008 through 2010, when a man named Henry Butler — now in charge of George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center — ran the Searle Center.
Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University’s School of Law, says corporate sponsorships at the school “ended the moment Butler left.” Rodriguez, who became the dean of Northwestern’s law school last year, says the school recently decided to terminate the programs. He says he’s against corporate sponsorship of judicial seminars.
“These programs should be free from any real or perceived conflict of interest,” he says.