Judge Junkets Come Under Scrutiny

Corporate documents indicate that educational seminars for federal judges have been funded by Exxon Mobil and Phillip Morris. Critics say this amounts to corporate lobbying of the federal judiciary. Chief Justice John Roberts has expressed concern about the issue, and a panel of federal judges is considering the possibility of new ethics rules.

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Newly discovered documents show that ExxonMobil and Philip Morris have been underwriting seminars for federal judges. The two organizations that hold the seminars say they're balanced and objective. Critics call it corporate lobbying.

NPR's Peter Oberby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

The document hunt began three years ago. That's when attorney Lissy Friedman began looking through millions of documents made public in litigation with tobacco companies. She's an attorney at the non-profit Tobacco Control Research Center.

Friedman wanted documents that would identify big tobacco's legal allies. She says one ally turned out to be the Legal and Economic Center at George Mason University, in northern Virginia.

Ms. LISSY FRIEDMAN (Attorney, Tobacco Control Research Center): Well, there's a very direct relationship. Philip Morris, we have budget sheets and allocations to the Law and Economic Center. We also have a presentation in which they discussed litigation and policy strategy, in which they identify the Law and Economic Center as a quote key ally.

OVERBY: George Mason's Law and Economic Center, or LEC, favors the concept that economics and the market play a big role in the legal process. That approach appeals to free market conservatives, and not at all to the public health advocates and environmentalists who support federal statues.

A spokeswoman for Altria, Philip Morris' parent company, says the company still supports the LEC, including $5,000 this year.

Freidman, the researcher, says LEC seminars often use lecturers who also appear in court as expert witnesses for the tobacco companies.

That's beside the point, says Frank Buckley, the Center's Director since 1999.

Professor FRANK BUCKLEY (Professor of Law and Director, Law and Economic Center, George Mason University): Lecturers are enjoined not to talk about hot-button topics.

OVERBY: Buckley says the programs are balanced and quote the most academic ones you could imagine. He says the Center simply keeps its donor list secret.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Not knowing our donors, judges who attend a program are not going to be able to favor anyone.

OVERBY: There's a different disclosure policy at another economics and law center. That's FREE, the Foundation for Research on Economics in the Environment, in Bozeman, Montana.

According to FREE's website, and an interview with NPR six years ago, it won't accept corporate money for its federal judicial seminars on environmental law. But documents from ExxonMobil showed that in 2004, that company's charity foundation gave $20,000 to federal judicial seminars at FREE. ExxonMobil itself gave $20,000 for a judicial seminar on climate change. That's an issue of intense concern to the oil industry.

An Exxon spokesman confirmed the contributions. He said they were for administrative expenses, not the direct costs of bringing the judges to the seminars.

FREE's Executive Vice President, Pete Geddes, says there's no hidden corporate influence.

Mr. PETE GEDDES (Executive Vice President, Foundation for Research on Economics in the Environment, in Bozeman, Montana): This notion that the judges come on out to Montana for a week-long seminar and then run home, microchip implanted, and then change their decisions in important environmental cases, I just don't think passes the smell test.

OVERBY: But at Community Rights Council, an environmental law group that is critical of the seminars, Director Douglas Kendall says it boils down to secret corporate lobbying.

Mr. DOUGLAS KENDALL (Director, Community Rights Council): The two main organizations hosting junkets for federal judges are hiding critical information about their corporate ties. And they're hiding this information from the judges who participate and their programs.

OVERBY: The question of privately financed seminars and judicial ethics is getting a closer look.

Chief Justice John Roberts was asked about it during his confirmation hearing last September.

Justice JOHN ROBERTS (Chief U.S. Supreme Court Justice): I don't think special interests should be allowed to lobby federal judges. As stated that way, I think the answer is clear.

OVERBY: Roberts went on to say he didn't know any details of these seminars. But since his confirmation as Chief Justice, the Federal Judiciary has assigned a panel of judges to find out.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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