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When judges get free trips to luxury resorts, disclosure is spotty

Many federal judges receive free rooms and subsidized travel to luxury resorts for legal conferences. NPR found that dozens of judges did not fully disclose the perks they got.
Chelsea Beck for NPR
Many federal judges receive free rooms and subsidized travel to luxury resorts for legal conferences. NPR found that dozens of judges did not fully disclose the perks they got.

Dozens of federal judges failed to fully disclose free luxury travel to judicial conferences around the world, as required byinternal judiciary rules and federal ethics law, an NPR investigation has found. As a result, the public remained in the dark about potential conflicts of interest for some of the United States' top legal officials.

Federal judges — occasionally with family members or even their dog in tow — traveled to luxury resorts in locations as far-flung as London; Palm Beach, Fla.; Bar Harbor, Maine; and the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park for weeklong seminars. The judges received free rooms, free meals and free money toward travel expenses, together worth a few thousand dollars.

At one event, a far-right German politician with a history of racially inflammatory and anti-immigrant statements made a presentation to dozens of judges. At others, judges heard from an advocacy group that uses lawsuits in federal court to change environmental policy, as well as from corporate CEOs in the oil and pharmaceutical industries.

For almost two decades, the federal judiciary has recognized that the combination of apparent luxury and ideological content can present the appearance of undue influence on the courts. In response, the judiciary has required more transparency in the form of public disclosure.

An NPR investigation found that the disclosure systems often fail to give the public timely information about the outside benefits that judges receive and from whom.

As a result, judicial ethics experts say, people with cases before these judges lack important information about a judge's potential biases. That information, if received in time, could be used to request that a judge recuse from a particular case.

"It also matters to the public, even if someone never shows up in a courtroom, to believe in the integrity of our judiciary and to trust in the decisions that are issued by judges," said Renee Knake Jefferson, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. "Having disclosures of judicial financial interests goes directly to the public having confidence in the outcomes of the decisions — that they are free of any bias or influence."

Many judges defend these events as helpful forums to discuss important issues, and they reject criticism that a stay at a fancy hotel could influence their decisions. Critics call them "junkets" and glorified vacations that reward ideological allies.

Both sides agree that disclosure is needed.

There are two primary ways the public can view information about judicial education events and see which judges attended: One disclosure is filed soon after the event, and the other is submitted much later.

First, within 30 days of an event, judges are required to file a form that details the host of the event and the entities that provided funding, as well as the speakers and topics of discussion. This form, called a "Privately Funded Seminar Disclosure Report," is posted on every federal court's website.

Second, federal law requires that judges report the reimbursements they received for the events on an annual financial disclosure report. That report also includes information like alternate sources of income (such as a book deal or teaching job) and what stocks a judge might own. Those reports are eventually posted on a centralized online database maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

By closely examining the portion of these events subject to public records laws, NPR identified problems with both systems.

In nearly 40 instances, judges attended events at luxury resorts but failed to properly file a report within 30 days. In fact, the forms were uploaded months or even years late and only after NPR began asking questions.

In 13 cases, NPR found that judges failed to declare the benefits they received on their annual financial disclosure forms.

NPR contacted all those judges for comment.

And in another dozen cases, judges' financial disclosures for 2021 or 2022 were simply unavailable to the public. By all accounts, judges are filing those annual disclosure reports on time. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts bears responsibility for posting those reports online and has acknowledged delays in getting the system up to date.

There is no indication that the judges intentionally withheld information in order to deceive the public. And the office that administers the annual financial disclosure website told NPR that it struggles to work through a backlog of reports, as well as requests for redactions to protect judges' safety, but is making progress.

Ethics experts said delays and omissions in these reports undermine the entire purpose of the transparency rules.

"That information loses most of its value if it's a year and a half later," said Kedric Payne, the senior director of ethics at the nonprofit watchdog Campaign Legal Center. "It's just too distant from the potential conflict of interest."

Regardless of intention, the result is that the public is kept in the dark. And NPR's findings likely represent an undercount of the larger problem.

Events with ideological presentations and a side of luxury

Nonprofits, legal organizations and private universities all host judicial education events around the world. But those groups are generally not subject to public records laws. As a result, their full attendee lists are shielded from public scrutiny.

When it comes to the hosts of these events, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., is exceptional in two ways.

George Mason University's campus in Fairfax, Va., in 2018.
Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Universal Images Group via Getty Images
George Mason University's campus in Fairfax, Va., in 2018.

For one, GMU — particularly the university's conservative-leaning Law & Economics Center — has long stood out as one of the most prolific hosts of judicial education events. Collectively, hundreds of judges have attended the university's events at luxury resorts over the years. GMU is quick to point out that the events are paid for by private donors. The Law & Economics Center's website lists donors that include major corporations like Amazon, Pfizer, Google and Facebook, as well as the business lobby group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to the New York Times, conservative activist Leonard Leo helped gather $30 million in donations to rename the law school after late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

GMU is a public university in Virginia, which means it is subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act. NPR requested attendee lists for eight of its judicial education events from 2021 to 2023. By comparing attendee lists with the publicly available records, NPR was able to identify dozens of missing disclosures.

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That missing information may be relevant to both the public at large and people with cases in front of these judges.

For example, dozens of judges took part in a 2022 event that featured a speaker from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) political party. Germany has been rocked by massive protests in recent months over revelations about AfD's ties to right-wing extremism. A regional AfD leader is facing charges in Germany for allegedly using Nazi slogans, which he denies.

Gunnar Beck, a member of the European Parliament and an AfD member, spoke to the group of American federal judges about "European Jurisprudence." Beck has a history of anti-immigrant and racially inflammatory statements.

In 2021 — the year before his presentation to the judges — Beck took multiple photos of Black families, including young children in strollers, and posted them on social media. In one of the posts, he used the photo to criticize what he called the Afrikanisierung (Africanization) of Germany. (This post was deleted after NPR contacted Beck.) In another, Beck wrote that due to immigration, "Germany has no future as an industrial and cultural nation, but it does have a future as a welfare office."

Beck told NPR in an email that "each country and its people have a right to control their border with a view to safeguarding their maintenance of their national culture and identity" and that "I do not think these views are either fascist or racist."

The GMU events have also featured presentations from a nonprofit that says it uses lawsuits to promote a pro-market, as opposed to pro-regulation, approach to environmental policy; the CEO of a U.K.-based pharmaceutical company; and the CEO of an energy company that is currently suing the federal government over financial regulations.

One recent event included a reading assignment on the "worst decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court" as defined by conservative and libertarian legal scholars. Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion, was No. 2. Landmark cases establishing rights to same-sex marriage and the use of birth control also appeared among the top 10 "worst" decisions.

Given the power of judges to affect Americans' lives on issues from guns to abortion, the environment and crime, transparency about these events is critical, said Gabe Roth of the nonprofit watchdog group Fix the Court.

"The public has a right to know whether or not its top legal officials have any potential conflicts going into hearing cases," said Roth. "Sometimes they're small bore, but a lot of the times they have major national impact."

The agendas for the GMU events showed that the event programming often ended around noon, followed by a five- or six-hour "study break." In some instances, the agendas leave days completely free.

It's unclear exactly how judges spent that time. But attendees had the opportunity to enjoy the Ritz-Carlton's clay tennis courts, the Alyeska Resort's Nordic Spa or the short walk to Buckingham Palace from the May Fair Hotel in London. The agenda for GMU's 2022 Bar Harbor Colloquium in Maine reserved 90 minutes for a wine tasting.

The Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, in 2009.
John Greim / LightRocket via Getty Images
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LightRocket via Getty Images
The Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, in 2009.

A spokesperson for GMU did not respond to NPR's specific questions for this story.

"Topics are selected based on foundational concepts in the economic analysis of law relevant to judges and other areas of interest to the judiciary," wrote Ken Turchi, associate dean of GMU's Antonin Scalia Law School, in an email. "Every judge who attends has the option to complete and submit a disclosure form detailing expenses incurred and reimbursed."

Which judges have disclosure problems?

Problems plagued the paperwork for judges appointed by presidents of both major parties going back decades, including Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

And the judges who failed to fully comply with the disclosure requirements include some notable names.

Judge Aileen Cannon of the Southern District of Florida is presiding over former President Donald Trump's criminal trial for allegedly mishandling classified documents. Cannon, herself a Trump appointee, attended two seminars at a luxury resort in Montana, but the privately funded seminar disclosures for both events were not posted online until NPR began making inquiries. Clerk of court Angela Noble told NPR in an email that the absence of the disclosures was due to technical issues and that "Any omissions to the website are completely inadvertent."

Judge Robert Conrad is the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
/ U.S. Courts
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U.S. Courts
Judge Robert Conrad is the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Judge Robert Conrad is the current director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which implements the policies of the federal judiciary. Conrad, who was appointed by George W. Bush to the Western District of North Carolina, attended three privately funded seminars from 2021 to 2023. He later included the events on his annual financial disclosure but did not file a publicly available disclosure for any of those events within the required 30-day time limit. "He inadvertently did not make the additional disclosure in the separate system for private seminar attendance," said Peter Kaplan, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office. "Judge Conrad appreciates your bringing this oversight to his attention."

Judge Leslie Gardner of the Middle District of Georgia, who is the sister of prominent Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, also failed to file a privately funded seminar disclosure on time. Additionally, NPR found that Gardner omitted the reimbursements she received for lodging, meals and travel on her annual financial disclosure. In a phone call to NPR, clerk of court David Bunt said that Gardner, an Obama appointee, was updating her annual financial disclosure and privately funded seminar disclosure, which were incomplete due to an "oversight."

"I don't have really an excuse for it, and I'm going to correct it"

Judges contacted by NPR largely described the issues with their disclosures as the result of an "inadvertent oversight" or an "accident." In a handful of cases, court clerks blamed technical issues with the online system for uploading paperwork. One judge appeared to be unaware of the requirement to file a disclosure report within 30 days. Several judges thanked NPR for contacting them and prompting them to update their disclosure reports.

"It looks like we blew it," said Judge Philip Gutierrez of the Central District of California in a phone call to NPR. Gutierrez failed to file a disclosure within 30 days of attending a judicial seminar at The Breakers, a resort in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2021. "I apologize. It's important. I'm embarrassed."

Gutierrez immediately uploaded the missing disclosure.

Judge Gary Fenner of the Western District of Missouri attended the same GMU 2021 seminar in Palm Beach but failed to file a privately funded seminar disclosure and omitted the event from his annual financial disclosure that year.

"I am really surprised that I did not report that," said Fenner, an appointee of Bill Clinton, in a phone message to NPR. "I'm going to rectify it. I'm embarrassed about the fact that somehow that was overlooked by me. But I don't have really an excuse for it, and I'm going to correct it."

Judge Keith Starrett of the Southern District of Mississippi, a George W. Bush appointee, said he had thought he marked his attendance at GMU's seminar at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa in Colorado in 2021 on his annual financial disclosure. He acknowledged that it was missing from the forms due to an "oversight."

"I'm going to do whatever I need to do to get it right," he said by phone.

In the District Court for the Southern District of Texas, NPR found three judges — Jeffrey Brown, Andrew Edison and Charles Eskridge — who had not filed the required privately funded seminar disclosure forms. After NPR contacted the court, the judges uploaded the forms, and clerk of court Nathan Ochsner said in an email, "At the direction of Chief Judge Randy Crane, my office will routinely remind all [Southern District of Texas] judges of this reporting requirement."

Meanwhile, the delays in getting access to annual financial disclosure reports appear to be the result of the time limits built into the transparency laws, as well as a combination of long processing times for redactions requested by judges and, in some cases, security concerns.

The law requires that judges file their annual financial disclosure reports for the previous year on May 15. Many judges request and receive a 90-day extension, pushing that deadline to mid-August. Judges can then request that the judiciary redact "personal or sensitive information that could directly or indirectly endanger" the judge or the judge's family, but then a committee has to review the request.

"So if you're a judge that asked for a 90-day extension and then, on top of that, you're asking for redactions," said Roth, of Fix the Court, the public release of the annual disclosure is "already well into the following year."

Former federal Judge Jeremy Fogel, who is now the executive director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute, evaluated some of these redaction requests when he served on the judiciary's Committee on Financial Disclosure.

"I don't think that the problem you described is one where the judiciary doesn't want to share the information," said Fogel. "I think the problem is that they have not been able to put the resources in place to get the information online and available to the public in a timely manner."

NPR sent a list of judges to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and asked why their annual financial disclosures for 2021 or 2022 were still unavailable. Kaplan, the Administrative Office spokesperson, said he "could not comment on specific judges' filings." In general, Kaplan blamed missing disclosures on backlogs in the system and reviews of filings for possible security issues.

"Currently, nearly all filings from 2021 and more than 80% of the filings from 2022 are available on the database," said Kaplan. "We are continuing to cut into the backlog of reports."

An ongoing debate over judges and luxury trips

Even if judges universally filed their disclosure reports on time and if the federal judiciary sped up the release of information, it would likely not end the ongoing debate over judges getting thousands of dollars in free perks, especially at ideologically slanted conferences.

Fogel said that in his time as a judge, he tended to avoid events that might be perceived as ideological.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's unethical," said Fogel. "But I think it's better — it's a best practice — for judges to avoid programs that have a particular philosophical or ideological viewpoint."

Judge Starrett, of the Southern District of Mississippi, has attended five GMU legal events in the last three years and even brought his German shepherd to one of them.

He rejected the idea that his views could be swayed by a certain speaker's agenda or free perks.

"I've been called a liberal judge. I've been called a conservative judge. I've been called a son of a bitch. That comes with the territory," said Starrett. "I pay close attention to speakers that are politically biased one way or another. I listen to them, and I challenge some of them. I ask pointed questions."

Judge Gutierrez, of the Central District of California, has attended three GMU events in the last three years.

"Certainly, I think people have a slant. But for the most part, I found them to be interesting and educational," he said. He added that a group of federal judges will always tend to ask tough questions and get into spirited debates — whether in court or in a legal seminar.

"We want our judges out in the world learning and teaching. And we want our judges to have friendships. We want our judges to be able to travel," said Jefferson, the legal ethics expert at the University of Houston Law Center. "It's the disclosure that matters."

Nick McMillan and Hilary Fung contributed reporting and visuals, with graphic editing by Alyson Hurt. This story was edited by Barrie Hardymon with research by Barbara Van Woerkom. Photo editing by Emily Bogle.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Tom Dreisbach
Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.
Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.