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The United States’ federal judges officially came out Tuesday against a Senate bill that would prohibit private organizations from funding judicial education. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., had introduced a measure prohibiting private funding in July. They acted in response to a study by the D.C.-based Community Rights Counsel and an article in The Washington Post this summer revealing that conservative foundations had been paying federal judges’ expenses to attend pricey educational seminars, many in exclusive resort areas. Ralph Winter Jr., chairman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, said at a press conference on Sept. 19 that the conference had voted to oppose the ban on private funding. Winter, chief judge of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, called the prohibition “enormously broad” and “an interference in the marketplace of ideas.” Under the Kerry-Feingold bill, the Federal Judicial Center would vet judges’ participation in seminars, based on the programs’ content and sponsorship. If the FJC approved of a trip, the judges’ expenses would be paid by a new $2 million annual appropriation. “This would alter the role of the FJC, which now does good work, and turn it into a censor,” said Winter. Winter said the judicial leadership will “continue to look at” the broader issue of whether such travel by sitting judges creates a conflict of interest. “My colleagues on the conference and I are well aware that there’s public concern over these things,” Winter said. “We gave this careful consideration.” Douglas Kendall, head of the Community Rights Counsel, says, “I think the Judicial Conference missed an opportunity to ban corporate-funded junkets for judges.” In a statement, Kerry said, “We regret that the conference once again decided to overlook this issue. I think all of us would agree that we risk a loss of faith in the judicial system if more and more Americans believe that money is deciding who has access to our federal judges to argue for their legal agenda, and that is clearly not in the best interests of our democracy or the courts.”

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