The Law and Economics Center (LEC) at George Mason University School of Law is perhaps the one institution that brings together Charles Koch and Mickey Mouse. Koch's foundation, along with dozens of corporations, funds LEC. The Law and Economics Center, once labeled a "key ally" by the tobacco industry, organizes all-expenses-paid seminars for federal and state judges. LEC touted the location of one seminar as "sunny" and being known for its "great weather and proximity to Disneyland." At these seminars, the judges are exposed to a curriculum with a "free-market, anti-regulatory bent." As Fox News and other right-wing media conduct a ritualized freakout over the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals conference in Hawaii, the Law and Economic Center's activities, which shape how judges understand the law, as opposed to where they hold their meetings, deserve scrutiny.
Not much interesting can be said about the Ninth Circuit conference brouhaha. As authorized by a federal statute, the various federal judicial circuits routinely gather their judges and the lawyers who practice in their courts for panel discussions and other educational activities. They meet somewhere in the circuit. For example, the Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, met earlier this month in Chicago. Similarly, Hawaii is part of the Ninth Circuit.
The Law and Economics Center's judicial programs are a different matter altogether. One judicial ethics watchdog has described it as "the nation's longest running and largest junketing program for federal judges." LEC was heavily involved in the tobacco industry's efforts to defeat cigarette litigation, and an internal Phillip Morris memo once listed it as one of the company's "Key Allies." Other tobacco companies also contributed to LEC, and Altria, the corporate successor to Phillip Morris, is a current donor.
The Law and Economic Center has provided a solid return on investment for its corporate donors. It once boasted that many judges who participated in its programs reported that doing so "totally altered their frame of reference for cases involving economic issues." Puffery? Perhaps, but it is difficult to minimize one federal judge's frank confession that he based a ruling in an antitrust case on the ideas he was exposed to in an LEC seminar:
U.S. District Judge Spencer Williams attended a LEC seminar while presiding over a predatory pricing case. While he was attending the LEC seminar at the Key Biscayne Hotel in Miami, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the amount of $5 million which, under the law, he was bound to triple to $15 million. Instead, he returned from the seminar and overturned the jury's verdict. He later wrote a letter to LEC that read in part: "As a result of my better understanding of the concept of marginal costs, I have recently set aside a $15 million anti-trust verdict."
The Law and Economic Center once favored expensive resorts for its programs, leading one judicial attendee of a 1997 event to report that value of the seminar was $7,367. It has since evolved into a new model, in which events are held on law school campuses. That does, not however, mean that LEC has forsaken fun in the sun for its judicial pupils. As noted above, the promotional materials for the "Economic Institute for Judges, Week 2" held in March at Chapman University Law School in Orange County, California, made sure that potential participants understood that the weather in Southern California is actually pretty darn good and that Disneyland is just down the freeway.
Judges attend these programs for free. LEC's website states: "As with all Mason JEP programs, your tuition is covered by the program, we book and pay for your hotel, and transportation costs are reimbursable up to $500 (plus 50% of the marginal amount exceeding $500)."
The website also lists the Law and Economic Center's donors. In addition to Koch and Altria, they consist of large corporations and industry groups with strong interests in how judges interpret environmental and other regulations, apply antitrust law, and decide tort cases. These include 3M, Dow Chemical, Eli Lilly, Farmers Insurance, Ford, General Electric, GlaxoSmithKline, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Shell Oil, State Farm, Walmart, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute.
The Law and Economic Center's decision to somewhat ratchet down the cushiness of the venues for its seminars and, after years of controversy, disclose its donors may at least partially explain how it has recently been able to avoid media scrutiny. It also seems to now involve some speakers who do not adhere to the deregulatory law and economics ideology in its events. But none of these tweaks to its public positioning changes what it actually does, which is take corporate money and use it to teach state and federal judges a curriculum based on deregulation and limits on corporate accountability.
That seems more worthy of media attention than where the Ninth Circuit holds its conference.