Over at the Manhtattan Institute's Point of Law, George Mason University law professor Michael Krauss has posted a rather urgent-sounding piece, "S.1638 and the fight for judicial education," that seeks to defend the sorts of "legal seminars" that we've criticized as ethically troubling. He asserts that programs like his school's Law & Economics Center (LEC) are the "principal target of Senator Feingold's wrath;" and claims that they are not junkets, but dispassionate, unbiased academic retreats integral to the Center's intellectual mission.
Krauss may be technically correct that none of these programs have been held "at the Ritz," but its not insignifcant that they have been held at luxurious resorts where judges spend good chunks of their "workdays" swimming and playing golf. One judge, approached by ABC News' 20/20 at the Omni Tuscon Resort and asked whether his presence was really nothing more than a "junket," responded that, "it depends on what you mean by 'junket.'" Another judge, approached playing golf by the same investigative team, called the retreat his well-deserved "vacation."
The claim that Mason's programs have no motivations other than stimulating discussion also doesn't hold up well against the following:
- In that same 20/20 report, George Mason's law school dean flat-out admitted that the junkets are aimed at influencing decisions, declaring that, "Yes we are out to influence minds...if court cases are changed, then that's something we are proud of as well."
- Documents uncovered by public-interest attorney Lucy Friedman revealed that not only did cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris help subsidize the LEC's programs, but an internal presentation identified the Center as a "key ally" in the realm of litigation and policy strategy. LEC has also been funded by the likes of ExxonMobil and the ideologically-driven foundation run by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Krauss also expresses concern in his post about "judicial education programs" put on by trial lawyers and other groups. This is indeed a legitimate issue, as evidenced by recent revelations involving the Institute for Law and Economic Policy (ILEP) and the plaintiffs' law firm Milberg Weiss, that Feingold's legislation covers. That's why we've consistently said that at the end of the day, the matter of junkets isn't a left-right political issue, but an ethics issue with strong implications for the sanctity and reputation of the federal judiciary.
In the aforementinoed 20/20 piece, Abner Mikva, the former Chief Judge of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, plainly states that what's at stake here is the proper status of judges as "special" and held to a high ethical standard. Doing away with programs like that sponsored by LEC-- regardless of their underlying agenda-- will merely put judges on the same footing as other public servants and bolster public confidence in the American justice system's ability to be driven simply by the pertinent facts and the law, with no room for the agenda of people who pay for their vacations.