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Top-traveling federal judge says he’s not ‘snowed’ by presentations at expense-paid seminars

Posted Apr 1, 2013 6:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Which federal judges attended the most expense-paid seminars in the last 4 1/2 years?

The Center for Public Integrity analyzed judicial disclosure forms to find out.

The most frequent expense-paid travelers were Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Wolle of the Southern District of Iowa and Chief Judge Thomas Bennett of the Northern District of Alabama Bankruptcy Court, according to the center's report, covered by the National Law Journal. They each attended nine seminars.

“Concern about such trips have swirled in legal circles since for decades,” the NLJ says. The U.S. Judicial Conference addressed concerns in 2007 when it began requiring federal judges and seminar hosts to disclose conference information. Some critics have contended the seminars deliver free-market and conservative viewpoints that could influence the judges' rulings.

Bennett doesn't agree. He told the Center for Public Integrity he finds the seminars “infinitely invaluable” and “I’m not going to be snowed by anybody’s presentation.”

Wolle was also listed as a seminar sponsor, raising the possibility he may have offset the cost of his trips with donations, according to the Center for Public Integrity. He did not comment when contacted by the Center.

Wolle and Bennett were among 11 percent of federal judges who attended at least one seminar from mid-2008 through 2012 in which travel costs were covered by foundations or corporations. The most frequent sponsors of the seminars were conservative foundations, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, pharmaceutical maker Pfizer and State Farm Insurance.

The law school that most often hosted the seminars was George Mason University's School of Law in Virginia.

George Mason University law dean Daniel Polsby told the NLJ its seminar program is “extraordinarily valuable. The judges say it is, and we're going to keep on doing it.”

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