The long-running controversy over attendance by federal judges at corporate-funded judicial seminars may boil over this week in the Senate. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is preparing an amendment that would ban federal judges from accepting free judicial seminar trips paid for by privately funded groups. The seminars often are located in resort locales and are derided as corporate-funded junkets by critics.
A draft copy of the amendment, which may be introduced Thursday at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the federal judiciary pay-raise bill, also would prohibit federal judges from receiving more than $1,500 in reimbursement or expenses for other trips or events, with a $5,000 annual cap. Seminars or trips sponsored by governmental, judicial, or bar associations would be exempt from the requirements. Feingold’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment today.
Community Rights Counsel, a public interest law firm in the District, has pushed for the amendment. In a related matter, CRC sent a letter today to U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist for the Western District of Michigan who chairs the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Codes of Conduct. CRC is demanding the release of a 2005 confidential ethics opinion that was requested by U.S. District Judge Andre Davis over his former service on the board of directors of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, a corporate-funded libertarian group that pays for trips by federal judges to judicial seminars in Bozeman, Mont.
Quist says he doesn’t believe the opinion will be made public unless Davis consents to its release. “We have a very strong policy regarding confidentiality of these formal opinions,” he says. “In our written policy, we say it’s akin to the attorney-client privilege.”
Davis, who serves in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, didn’t respond to a request for comment today, but he spoke about the opinion last year during a recusal hearing over his former association with FREE. Davis said he sought the opinion after CRC filed an ethics complaint against him.
“What the code of conduct committee concluded was that owing primarily to FREE's website, primarily owing to FREE's website, there was shall we say tension between one or more of the canons that applied to federal judges and the appearance of a judge, federal judge as a member of the board of directors of FREE,” Davis said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Davis said he resigned from FREE's board after receiving the opinion, and a 4th Circuit order in 2005 then dismissed the ethics complaint. “Appropriate action has been taken to remedy the problem raised by the complaint,” the order stated.
Douglas Ginsburg, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and 3rd Circuit Judge Jane Roth, who faced similar ethics complaints from CRC, also resigned from FREE’s board in 2005 after the 4th Circuit order in Davis' case. But Ginsburg hasn't turned his back on FREE. He attended an expense-paid trip to Bozeman last year for a FREE seminar.
CRC founder and executive director Doug Kendall says the confidential ethics opinion for Davis should be released because it could reveal ethical problems both for federal judges who attend privately funded seminars and for two federal judges who still sit on FREE’s board, namely 6th Circuit Chief Judge Danny Boggs and 5th Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement. Boggs and Clement didn’t respond to requests for comment today.
“Judges continue to attend FREE’s junkets, all in significant part because this opinion was not released,” Kendall says. “They take judges to western resorts and they instruct them how and why to strike down environmental laws.”
FREE executive vice president Pete Geddes says that is "an absurd charge" because "we wouldn’t have been around for 17 years if we present one-sided, disingenuous seminars." Geddes says he doesn't have an opinion on whether Davis' ethics opinion should be released. “We’ll play by whatever rules are established. If we’re instructed we can’t have federal judges on our board, then we’ll abide by that," he says.
An ethics complaint by CRC against Boggs was dismissed in 2005 by 8th Circuit Chief Judge James Loken, who found no judicial misconduct relating to Boggs’ service on FREE’s board. Boggs wrote a commentary for Legal Times (subscription required) in 2005 after the dismissal of the ethics complaint.
FREE opposes Feingold's amendment that would ban groups such as FREE from paying for trips by federal judges to judicial seminars. "I think it is a disingenuous proposal promulgated by a group, CRC, that has a clear ideological agenda and strikes me as very dangerous," Geddes says. "The CRC is clearly attempting to eliminate travel [by federal judges] to groups that they don’t agree with."