Dick Cheney's duck-hunting jaunt with his old
Antonin Scalia rightly prompted questions about the ethics of Scalia's presiding over a case
in which Cheney is a defendant. Cheney is seeking to overturn
a lower-court ruling that ordered the vice-president to
disclose records of his energy policy task force's dealings
with the energy industry.
But the the Scalia-Cheney affair, as high-profile as it is -- and as irresistible as the duck angle has proved to headline writers -- is only one of a number of recent conflict of interest episodes involving federal judges.
According to the watchdog group
Community Rights Council, 5 percent of all federal judges have gone
on $10,000 junkets laid on by the Foundation for Research on
Economics and the Environment
(FREE). The non-profit
group is funded by corporate donors and gives seminars on
topics like, "The Environment: A C.E.O.'s Perspective"
in the great Rocky Mountains where the judges wine, dine,
horseback ride, and mingle with lawyers and businessmen.
Three federal judges even serve on FREE's Board of
This week, the CRC filed ethics petitions
with the Judicial Council demanding that the three judges
relinquish their FREE posts. As CRC's Executive
"There is pretty unmistakable evidence that the
organization that hosts environmental junkets for judges where they talk about
how and why federal judges should strike down environmental regulations appears to
be manipulating their board structure and (conference) schedule to influence the outcome of
important environmental cases."
Consider Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the Circuit Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia, a member of the
FREE's Board of Directors. Ginsburg served on the board
with Edward W. Warren, a lawyer for the plaintiff in a case
on trial in Ginsburg's courtroom: American Trucking
Associations Inc., vs. Environmental Protection Agency. The case challenged EPA's clean air
protections. The two judges presiding over the case along
with Ginsburg were beneficiaries of FREE's junkets. The
ruling went 2:1 in the American Trucking Association's
favor, but was later overturned by the Supreme Court.
FREE argues that Warren resigned from the board once
he "realized" that Ginsburg was on FREE's board of
directors. The group claims that this was done to
dispel any suspicions of wrongdoing and that no
conflict of interest took place. As FREE's Chairman
John A. Baden puts it:
"I don't see anything unusual with them both being on our
board. To characterize them as somehow creatures or captives
of some special interests is insulting."
Baden's statement is somewhat disingenuous; as the CRC's investigation discovered,
FREE conveniently omitted to mention Warren's membership on its
board of directors when it filed taxes.
Judge Jane R. Roth of the United States Court of Appeals in
Philadelphia, one of the three judges that CRC wants
to step down from FREE's Board of Directors, says that:
participation on the board has convinced me that this is not
a partisan organization but a foundation very interested in
presenting pertinent information."
The FREE web-site explains:
"While our seminars are
explicitly pro-environment, they
explain why ecological values are not the only important
ones. We stress that trade-offs among competing values are
inescapable. We show why it is ethically and materially
irresponsible to pretend such choices can be avoided."
corporate funders like
ExxonMobil, GE Fund, Maguire Oil Company, and Pfizer
International may be some of the reasons why the group's
proclaimed environmental values have a corporate slant.
FREE points out that the judges junkets are covered with
funds from "dead man" foundations, not its corporate
funders. This separation does nothing to sway critics, who
argue that this doesn't change the group's
anti-environmental agenda and seminars which, as CRC's
Kendall says, "take
conservative judges and give them a road map on how to
advance their philosophical leanings."
We are in the midst of what promises to be the most
expensive presidential race in the nation's
history. Americans have come to expect the worst when it
comes to the influence of"special interests" in politics.
We are not surprised to hear of the astronomical corporate
donations to political campaigns or of the luxurious trips
that our elected representatives enjoy. Yet we rely on the judiciary to curb the
influence of big money in politics, not, say, to mingle with
representatives of big business during luxury seminars about
how best to effect the evisceration of the nation's environmental
Corporate-funded junkets are nothing new; nor are they illegal.
CRC has created
includes a searchable database that documents where
corporate sponsors whisked off your local judges over the
years. The judges who joined FREE's Board of Directors
also broke no laws, but their behavior was less than
ethical, as is the more widespread acceptance of FREE's
junkets. Such incidents are a sad commentary on the nation's judiciary and erode public trust, which wasn't that strong to begin with.