Judge Seminars: To Inform or Influence?

At three o'clock on a glorious weekday afternoon in Tucson, Ariz., a group of federal judges finishes up the ninth hole on the links of one of the country's top golf courses.

In addition to golf, the judges have gathered at a resort to attend an educational program that critics call an inappropriate junket.

Golf, Sun and Seminars

Each year about one in 10 federal judges will attend similar private gatherings at some of the finest resorts in the country. The bill is picked up by a handful of groups that get their money from big corporations and pro-business organizations. Some argue the groups have a lot more on their agenda than a few rounds of golf.

"This is the way corporate America is lobbying the judiciary — teaching judges to rule as if they were corporate CEOs," says Doug Kendall, director of a nonprofit environmental group called The Community Rights Counsel. Kendall's group has linked the judges' seminars with what it considers the 10 most dramatic rulings against environmental protection laws.

"We found that in all 10 of those cases the judge writing the opinion had been to at least one of these junkets," says Kendall, "In six of those 10 cases, the judge was attending a junket while the case was pending before them."

In one case involving the timber industry, a federal judge completely reversed his position after attending one of these private seminars. The judge denies the seminar affected his industry-friendly decision but Kendall is skeptical.

The seminar in Tucson is organized by the Law and Economics Center, out of George Mason University's law school, which has a reputation for a pro-business leaning. The judges' week included seven separate sessions, which the school says are unbiased and over the years have included Nobel prize-winning economists.

Corporations Paying the Tab

George Mason's dean, Mark Grady, sees nothing morally questionable about the seminars. "These are academic retreats. What could be more natural than for a law school to seek to train academic judges?" he asks.

Grady is proud the academic seminars are influencing judge's thinking. "We are, yes, we are, we are out to influence minds," he says, "If court cases are changed, then that is something that we are proud of as well."

Grady doesn't name contributors, saying that George Mason no longer discloses its sources because "the academic program stands on its own feet." But this was not always the case. The corporate sponsors were publicized until 1994, which was when the criticism of the program began.

The donor list then was a who's who of Fortune 500 companies, many of which have cases before the federal courts. The list also included a foundation run by Richard Mellon Scaife, a conservative multimillionaire best known for financing investigations of President Clinton's personal life.

By reviewing tax documents, 20/20 has learned that last year alone, through his foundation, Scaife provided $150 thousand for the judges' free trips.

Question of Credibility

While such seminars are perfectly legal, judiciary ethicist Geoffrey Hazard says judges have a responsibility to determine who's paying for their virtually free week at the golf resort to avoid possible conflicts with pending cases.

The Tucson excursion was the fifth such seminar for Judge James Jarvis of Tennessee. Since Jarvis began attending the seminars, he has presided over at least six cases involving large corporations, all of which confirmed to 20/20 that they helped pay for the George Mason seminars. Jarvis says he doesn't know who was funding the conference and points out he's paying his own greens fees.

Judge Neal Biggers of Mississippi insists his decisions won't be swayed regardless of who's paying the tab. "If I don't know who is paying for it, then I am not going to be affected either way by who it is."

But former Judge Abner Mikva thinks the judges should avoid even the appearance of unethical behavior. "I think judges should realize that, that they don't have that much credibility to spare," says Mikva.

As chief judge of the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, he was appalled to see many upstanding judges being wined and dined by corporations in the name of judicial education. Mikva says, "The appearance of impropriety is considered as important as the impropriety itself."

Mikva worries that judges will follow the footsteps of politicians and lose the faith of the American public. "Most of the time we think about judges with more respect and more deference than we think about elected officials. I want to keep that distinction," he says.