Federal judges accept all-expense paid junkets to right-wing conferences

Federal judges were attending corporation-sponsored conferences at posh watering holes, at times on the very subjects of cases they have pending before them, a prominent law school dean wrote in a 2008 book of essays.

While at these sessions, “judges not only hear right wing views propagandized to them, but also hob nob with, speak with, drink with, play golf with, and sometimes even meet on Boards with right wing figures, right wing lawyers, and others who have pronounced right wing views,” said Lawrence Velvel, dean and cofounder of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover.

“The conferences are paid for by rich right wing foundations – (Sarah) Scaife, of Pittsburgh, Pa., (Charles) Koch, of Arlington, Va. etc.--- and by wealthy, powerful companies involved regularly in litigation where their side is, at minimum, the conservative side,” he said. After attending these sessions, Vevel noted, judges “have been known to go back home and alter rulings on cases on the issues discussed at a one-sided conference.”

Velvel, who formerly worked as a lawyer in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice in Washington, said, “one of the reasons antitrust is now of such little value in the U.S. is that the judiciary has adopted views taught at the right wing conferences.”

Writing about the seminars, Dorothy Samuels, a member of the editorial board of The New York Times on January 20, 2006, said the seminars are “underwritten by monied interests out to influence judges to rule in favor of corporate interests on issues like environmental protection and liability for harmful products.”

“Conducted under the innocuous sounding banner of ‘judicial education’,” Samuels added, “(i)n reality these slanted multi-day sessions mock the ideal of an independent, impartial judiciary…”

Some justices go beyond what The Times calls “conferenceering” by accepting costly gifts outright. Justice Clarence Thomas was cited by the paper because he “had accepted thousands of dollars in gifts in recent years, including an $800 leather jacket, a $1,200 set of tires from NASCAR, and an extravagant vacation from a conservative activist.”

Velvel said that large corporations and wealthy right wing foundations are not likely to keep pouring money into these conferences---which they call ‘educational’ but which are really transmission belts for unalloyed, unchallenged right wing ideas (read propaganda)---unless they thought a benefit was accruing to them from the conferences. Big corporations pour money into lobbyists to get results, after all. Why would anything less be true of these conferences?”

Efforts to put an end to “conferenceering” were opposed by the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, on grounds of free speech and the right of judges to get educated. But, Velvel wrote, “The idea here is that ideas and alleged facts are being presented at the conferences, and that to stop judges from attending them, to stop judges from accepting all expenses-paid vactioneering junkets to one-sided right wing conferences, is to deny the judges access to speech and to stifle the operation of the marketplace of ideas. This, to put it bluntly, is unalloyed crap.” Velvel added, “If judges want to find out about a subject, (they can) read a book.”

Velvel said he doesn’t usually write about “the semi-obscenity called the federal judiciary” but when he does it is not favorable because the federal bench as a rule is biased against workers and consumers and traditionally decides in favor of business interests. Velvel’s remarks appeared in his latest book “An Enemy of the People”(Doukathsan Press).

The Massachusetts School of Law is purposefully dedicated to the education of minorities, immigrants and students from modest financial backgrounds that would otherwise not be able to afford a legal education and practice law. The school is known for providing a practical, quality education at about half the cost of most New England law schools. Velvel has been cited by the National Jurist as one of the leaders in legal education reform and has been similarly honored by the National Law Journal. Reach him at velvel@mslaw.edu.