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It’s an age-old question of legal ethics: what are the limits when judges travel on the private dime? The question was raised in bold fashion Monday by a liberal group that proffered circumstantial evidence that conservative-funded trips may have influenced judicial decisions. The D.C.-based Community Rights Counsel announced that it had set up an Internet site containing data about judges’ travel dating back seven years and drawn from federal financial disclosure forms. Among the examples cited by the group — both at a press conference and in a 106-page report — was a critical environmental case out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. On July 23, 1993, D.C. Circuit Judge Stephen Williams cast the deciding vote in Sweet Home v. Babbitt to uphold the government’s authority to prohibit habitat modifications that could kill an endangered species. The case had been brought by some timber companies opposing regulations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the time, Williams indicated in a one-paragraph concurrence that he was a reluctant vote against the timber companies. In a concurrence, he wrote that he found the analysis by dissenting Judge David Sentelle “highly persuasive.” Two weeks after the 2 to 1 ruling, Williams spent a week in Island Park, ID., for a seminar on economics and the environment, funded by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, according to the new Community Rights Counsel Web site. The foundation, known as “FREE,” promotes private property rights and is funded in part by such conservative foundations and corporations as Amoco, Koch Oil, and the Temple-Inland Company, a forest products company. The D.C. Circuit panel voted to rehear the case. And in 1994 Williams changed his vote and wrote the 2 to 1 majority opinion striking down the regulations. Ultimately, the Supreme Court reversed Williams’ decision by a 6 to 3 vote. Williams, a Reagan appointee and a leading conservative jurist on the D.C. Circuit, was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment. Doug Kendall, Community Rights Counsel’s executive director, acknowledged that these are murky issues. He calls the FREE events “activist camps” on conservative legal theories, but concedes he does not know whether the trip influenced Williams’ decision or not. “The question is whether corporations and special interests should be able to buy influence by hosting lavish and biased educational seminars for judges,” said Kendall at the press conference announcing www.tripsforjudges.org. John Baden, who heads FREE, said he was besieged with calls from news reporters after Kendall’s press conference Monday. Baden acknowledged that his group espouses an economics-based philosophy on environmentalism. But he defended the FREE seminars, saying they are ideologically balanced and always include speakers from traditional environmental groups. The liberal environmental point of view, he says, “is always in the agenda.” He added that the Island Park’s rooms cost $60 a day. “It’s the antithesis of a lavish resort,” Baden said. Ethics canons for federal judges do not prohibit judges from accepting free trips to judicial seminars, even if they espouse only one point of view. The federal judiciary operates its own education programs through the Federal Judicial Center. Some of the speakers at FREE events have also given presentations at the taxpayer-funded meetings put on by the Federal Judicial Center. Abner Mikva, the former chief judge of the D.C. Circuit who also served as President Bill Clinton’s White House counsel, wrote a preface to the Community Rights Counsel report, arguing that judicial education events should be funded by taxpayers, not private interests. “Even if all they discussed were their prostate problems, the judge and the party would be perceived to be acting improperly,” he wrote of privately funded trips. [Ed. note: Mikva writes a column for American Lawyer Media, which appears on law.com.] Mikva, who wrote the original Sweet Home opinion, was the dissenting judge in the rehearing. Kendall said Mikva had not suggested to him the connection between Williams’ vote change and the FREE seminar. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Monday that he was introducing legislation to ban privately funded trips. It’s unlikely such a proposal would pass in the remaining months of this Congress. The chairman of the Senate panel that oversees the federal courts, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is studying Kerry’s bill, but is not a co-sponsor, according to a Grassley press secretary.

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