When it comes to jetting off to golf resorts and dude ranches on big-business funds, federal judges are racking up the frequent-flyer miles.
According to the Washington watchdog group Community Rights Counsel, the DC Circuit ranks highest in the number of all-expenses-paid junkets taken by judges.
ExxonMobil, Philip Morris, and RJ Reynolds are paying for many of the trips, during which corporate-paid experts teach judges about evolving legal issues.
Though the junkets—to spots like London, Santa Fe, and ranches in Montana—are legal, CRC director Doug Kendall says the practice is questionable as they’re funded by companies with a “direct interest” in case outcomes.
The organizations that run most of the junkets are Montana’s Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and George Mason University’s Law and Economic Center (LEC). Both have insisted that corporate cash does not go to reimburse the judges and that the seminars are academic endeavors, not playtime.
One federal judge attending an LEC junket reported the seminar’s value at $7,367. CRC esti mates that FREE spends about $10,000 on each judge per junket.
Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the DC Court of Appeals ranked first nationwide in junkets taken, according to CRC. Second is Judge Loren A. Smith of the US Court of Federal Claims. In the fifth spot is Judge Pauline Newman of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.
Kendall says junketeers target judges on DC’s big three courts—the DC Circuit, the Federal Circuit, and the Court of Federal Claims—because they have exclusive authority to hear cases involving issues critical to corporate America.
In 2002, Ginsburg attended a six-day visit to Yellowstone National Park sponsored by FREE, which receives funding from companies with an interest in limiting clean-air regulation. Last fall Ginsburg was one of several judges who voted to uphold the Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act.
There may have been no connection between the court decision and Ginsburg’s all-expenses-paid trip, but Kendall says it still stinks. “The judiciary, more than any other branch of government, is supposed to be truly independent and unblemished by the stain of influence peddling,” he says.
Newman thinks the junkets serve a valuable purpose. “I find them edifying and intellectually satisfying, and I think more rather than fewer judges should attend,” she explains. “I do believe that judges are stepping back from participating in educational opportunities that they would be better off participating in.”
The issue is coming under scrutiny in the Senate, where a bill would require full disclosure of who pays for junkets and would ban corporations from underwriting judges’ expenses. Chief Justice John Roberts also is leading an ethics task force that may ground some of the junkets for all federal judges.