Publicly filed reports of privately funded trips and seminars made by federal judges are often difficult to find, incomplete or missing altogether, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.
In 2007, the organization that oversees the conduct of federal judges implemented an ethics policy requiring public disclosure of details about privately funded judicial education conferences.
Noting that judges may be “influenced inappropriately” by those who conduct the events, a panel of the Judicial Conference of the United States said the new disclosure requirements “should strengthen public and congressional confidence in federal judicial ethics.”
The Center collected disclosure information from 2008 through 2012. Many federal court websites are poorly designed and hard to navigate, making it difficult to find links to judges’ seminar-disclosure reports.
In some cases, links to reports were either broken or nonexistent. A handful of courts, including the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, linked to a different set of disclosures. In Delaware’s case, it was the U.S. District Court in Northern Texas.
The Center’s analysis also showed apparent lapses in reporting by hosts and judges.
For example, in August 2011, the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) hosted a five-day judicial conference at a ranch in Big Sky, Mont., entitled “Terrorism, Climate & Central Planning: Challenges to Liberty & the Rule of Law.”
FREE’s report indicated there was just one lecture: “Taking the Long View of Progress,” delivered by Judge Daniel Boggs of the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. But a conference agenda posted on FREE’s website shows there were in fact 11 lectures at the event.
Absent from FREE’s disclosure report were lectures delivered by two federal judges: Richard G. Stearns of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts and Douglas H. Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit.
John Baden, FREE’s chairman, told the Center he didn’t have the “foggiest idea” why his organization’s disclosure report appears incomplete in court records. “We make everything totally public,” he says, noting that complete conference agendas are always listed on FREE’s website.
Neither Stearns nor Ginsburg reported attending the conference on the required seminar disclosure forms. (Stearns, in fact, has never filed a seminar disclosure report.) However, both judges reported the conference on their more detailed, congressionally mandated annual financial disclosure reports.
Marsha Zierk, Stearns’ law clerk, told the Center that the judge was unaware of any seminar disclosure policy. Ginsburg did not respond to requests for comment.
Stearns and Ginsburg aren’t the only judges to report attending conferences on annual financial disclosure reports — which are enforced by fines and even jail time — yet fail to do so on seminar disclosure forms.
U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan of Louisiana’s Eastern District reported attending the 2010 International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law seminar hosted by the Aspen Institute but did not file the separate, required conference attendance paperwork that the Center used as the basis of its analysis.
“It’s just a mishap,” says Berrigan, noting that her secretary must have forgotten to file the seminar disclosure.
In some cases, seminars were reported, but no judges reported attending them.
Twenty-two seminars between July 2008 and the end of 2012 went unattended by federal judges, according to filings.
It is possible that only state judges attended; or that federal judges did appear, but paid their own way. But the discrepancy could also mean they failed to file.
Occasionally, judges report the presence of other judges at seminars who have not filed disclosure reports.
For example, last October Judge Ron Clark of the Eastern District of Texas District Court and Chief Judge Robert Clive Jones of the U.S. District Court in Nevada reported attending a judicial conference on patent litigation hosted by The Sedona Conference, a nonprofit research and educational organization, in Del Mar, Calif.
On each of their disclosure reports, the judges noted the names of eight other federal judges who also attended the conference.
None of the eight judges, five of whom were listed as speakers at the seminar, reported attending the privately funded conference. Speakers are required to report their attendance if they are reimbursed by the conference host.
In May 2011, U.S. District Judge Thomas Shields of Iowa’s Southern District reported attending a Northwestern University judicial program with two other federal judges. But neither of them filed disclosure reports.
The policy on judicial seminars was created in response to congressional efforts to ban judges from attending the often lavish educational retreats paid for by corporations and other private sources that might someday end up facing one of the participating judges in court.
The policy lacks teeth — there is no enforcement mechanism. In addition, the reporting requirements are weak. For example, the amount sponsors provide to fund seminars and retreats does not have to be reported.
Both judges and sponsors are required to file reports. Sponsors file must detail the event’s programs, speakers and sources of funding. State and local bar associations and some judicial groups are exempt from the policy.
Judges, if reimbursed by a private source for more than $335 worth of expenses, must post online a report disclosing certain details about the conference and its sponsors within 30 days of the event.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that … there are instances where a judge goes somewhere and they don’t report it,” says Russell Wheeler, former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center, an education and research agency for the federal courts. “How big a problem it is, I just don’t know.”
Wheeler says it’s not surprising that the disclosure policy lacks an enforcement mechanism. The Judicial Conference has very little authority.
“What are you going to do,” Wheeler asks, “dock their pay?”