03/28/2013 12:27 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2013

Corporations, pro-business nonprofits foot bill for judicial seminars

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.

Two schools -- George Mason University, located in Virginia just outside Washington, D.C., and Northwestern University based in Evanston, Ill., -- hosted more than two-thirds of the seminars.

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.

Well-traveled jurists

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.

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;
  • 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 sponsor 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.

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