Maine judge leads panel reviewing free-trip ban


WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal judges have begun considering whether free trips are appropriate for members of the bench as criticism picks up over judges’ expense-paid travel to private seminars.

A panel headed by U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby of Maine has met several times this spring to study the practice of expenses-paid seminars for judges and will make a recommendation to leaders of the federal judiciary.

On Wednesday, a liberal-leaning environmental organization, the Community Rights Counsel, turned over new records to the task force showing that cigarette-makers and oil companies gave money to two conservative groups that host seminars for judges.

The groups are the Montana-based Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment and the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University in Virginia.

Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, said his research “shows these groups which have hosted over a thousand trips for judges over the past 13 years have been misleading the public, media and judges about the nature of their funding.” The research was done by the CRC and the Public Health Advocacy Institute.

Officials at both conservative organizations said while they receive corporate funding, it’s not linked to seminars.

“There’s a Chinese wall between the donors and the judges,” said Francis Buckley, who directs the George Mason program, which does not reveal the names of financial backers.

Pete Geddes, executive vice president for the Bozeman, Mont.-based group, said that corporate money is not used to pay for judicial seminars and that 2004 documents by Exxon Mobil Foundation indicating otherwise are incorrect.

Federal judges are allowed to take expense-paid trips for seminars and other events, but they must report the travel. Details of 2005 trips will be available soon; reports were due last week.

Judges’ travel financed by private organizations has gotten increasing attention on Capitol Hill, where ethics is a hot subject amid the corruption scandal spawned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Three Democratic senators have proposed barring judges from taking free trips to seminars sponsored by special interests, unless their courts pay the bill. Some congressional Republicans, meanwhile, want an independent watchdog over the judiciary to police judges’ acceptance of free trips and potential conflicts.

Community Rights Counsel:


Law and Economics Center: