Educational seminars or judicial junkets?

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Does it matter that giant oil companies and drug makers are the most frequent sponsors of all-expense-paid seminars for federal judges? 

Does it matter that more than 100 of these judicial seminars have an acknowledged bias toward presenting a conservative, free-market ideology?

Is this a real or only an imagined problem? No matter how any citizen answers these questions, there can be no argument that full transparency and accountability for such judicial travel are required—and that’s what The Center for Public Integrity provides with this week’s new investigative report and interactive database.

The perception of corporations buying influence exists, whether or not these educational retreats really do impact judicial decision-making.

After all, the Center found instances where judges traveled to seminars paid for by oil companies, the American Petroleum Institute, or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and later issued rulings favoring some of those same sponsors.

Certainly, there is a First Amendment right for any federal judge to travel to Sedona, Ariz., Chicago, or Washington, D.C., to attend a conservative-leaning conference.  And, there is nothing illegal about having the trip paid for by corporations who in some cases are also litigants before the federal courts.

But if all that is just fine, as judges insist it is, then it is critical to make sure all of this information is publicly available and searchable. And it should be clear how much sponsors are paying for these seminars— that information is not required to be reported under current rules, which should be of grave concern to anyone who cares about an untainted judiciary.

In addition, the biggest conference organizer, located at George Mason University’s law school, is no longer listing sponsors, which is also troubling.

The public will be able weigh in on the perception of bias, and judge the judges on the substance of their actions and rulings that follow only when full disclosure of these events is required and the rules are enforced.

Until next week,

Bill      

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