Right-wing legal interests funded by the megawealthy are routinely feting lower-court judges and treating them to all-expenses-paid trips, which effectively function as a reward system for judges who espouse and maintain hard-line conservative legal views.

Guests in the audience during the Federalist Society Executive Branch Review Conference at the Mayflower Hotel, April 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

In 2021 and 2022, two conservative, billionaire-funded legal interests sent more than one hundred federal judges on 251 trips to conferences and seminars in cushy locations around the country and overseas, according to a Lever review of hundreds of federal financial disclosure forms.

In all, George Mason University (GMU) and the Federalist Society, a conservative lawyers network, funded more than 40 percent of travel-related payments reported by federal judges in those years, far more than any other group.

The staggering number of junkets indicate that, as conservative Supreme Court justices face scrutiny for failing to disclose private luxury travel supplied by billionaire donors, right-wing legal interests funded by the megawealthy are routinely feting lower-court judges and treating them to all-expenses-paid trips to far-flung locales. As with the gifts to Supreme Court justices, the trips effectively function as a reward system for judges who espouse and maintain hard-line conservative legal views.

GMU — a Virginia-based public research university that’s home to the conservative Antonin Scalia Law School and its pro-business, anti-regulation Law and Economics program — paid for federal judges’ transportation, meals, or lodging at least 152 times from 2021–22. The Washington-based Federalist Society covered travel or food-related expenses on at least ninety-nine occasions during the same time period. The judges are not required to disclose how much the excursions cost.

The Federalist Society and GMU are both closely tied to the conservative legal movement and billionaire donors who have a financial interest in how the federal judiciary interprets laws. Both institutions also accept corporate donations.

“The data is really compelling,” said Caroline Fredrickson, a distinguished visiting professor from practice at Georgetown Law. “It confirms what we all knew intuitively: The Federalist Society and George Mason have a deep reach into the federal judiciary, and are using it to ensure that a very particular point of view about legal analysis is conveyed to judges and is done in luxury accommodations, so that judges are much more likely to attend.”

The Lever reviewed electronically available financial disclosure forms filed by more than 1,300 federal judges in 2021 and 2022, and identified at least 595 instances of judges disclosing reimbursements for travel-related expenses.

GMU and the Federalist Society were far and away the top sources of such payments, together accounting for 42 percent of all reimbursements listed by the federal judges. No other organizations came anywhere close to matching their generosity: The third-most common sources on the list — Notre Dame, Georgetown, and George Washington University — accounted for thirteen reimbursements apiece.

The Federalist Society is cochaired by former Donald Trump judicial adviser Leonard Leo, best known as the architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, and the organization receives significant funding from his dark money network. Last year, the Supreme Court that Leo helped build overturned decades of precedent and eliminated federal protections for abortion rights.

Leo, the beneficiary of a historic $1.6 billion dark money donation in 2021, previously brokered a $20 million anonymous gift to rename GMU’s law school after the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. As the Lever and ProPublica have reported, that gift to GMU was apparently made by Barre Seid, a little-known Chicago industrialist who converted his electrical surge protector empire into funding for Leo’s unprecedented dark money operation.

GMU has separately received tens of millions in donations from foundations affiliated with the billionaire oil and gas titan Charles Koch, a libertarian activist and longtime opponent of environmental regulations. That included a $10 million contribution in support of renaming the law school. Koch’s foundations have also supported the Federalist Society.

“Right-wing efforts to legislate through our courts — led and bankrolled by conservative kingpin Leonard Leo — have seeped into all levels of the federal judiciary,” said Caroline Ciccone, president of the progressive watchdog group Accountable.US. “It’s no surprise that Leo’s Federalist Society and Scalia Law School are now key hubs for conservative judges to score free luxury trips and unusual perks, undermining judicial integrity and contributing to plummeting public trust in our courts.”

Spokespeople for Leo, Koch’s charitable foundation, GMU’s Antonin Scalia Law School, and the Federalist Society did not respond to the Lever’s requests for comment.

“Study Time”

The forty-nine-year-old Law and Economics Center, which promotes a pro-business, anti-regulatory legal perspective, has been housed at GMU since 1986. As the center noted in an event agenda last year, its purpose is to pull together “timely, relevant, and unassailable research on public policy issues” and share it with “those who are directly shaping our country’s public policy discussions.”

“With research divisions devoted to top-quality legal policy analysis and educational outreach to judges, attorneys general, and other policymakers, the [Law and Economics Center] is uniquely equipped to positively affect national policy outcomes,” the center wrote.

A 2022 review of rulings by judges who participated in an early version of this Law and Economics program decades ago by researchers at Columbia University, ETH Zurich, and the Toulouse School of Economics suggests that the core mission of the project has been highly successful.

“Economics-trained judges significantly shift legal outcomes in U.S. courts,” wrote the researchers. “They use economic analysis in their written opinions, render conservative votes and verdicts, rule against regulation, are somewhat more permissive on antitrust, and mete out harsher criminal sentences. When ideas move from economics into law, there are important policy consequences.”

The Law and Economics Center’s judicial educational programs tend to take place at uber-ritzy junkets. Between 2021 and 2022, GMU brought federal judges to destinations including the university’s homebase of Arlington, Virginia; the beaches of Naples and Destin, Florida, and Maui, Hawaii; the mountains of Colorado and Montana; and the United Kingdom and Italy. The program also hosted an event in Leo’s adopted home of Bar Harbor, Maine, right around the time that the Supreme Court overturned its landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision.

“Mostly these George Mason things are not held in, you know, Arlington, Virginia,” said Fredrickson, the Georgetown law professor. “They’re held in the Rockies or at Florida resorts, or in some other place where the judge doesn’t have to pay their own way, and it’s pretty nice to get a free ride like that.”

She continued, “If you look at their agendas, they work for an hour or two a day, and then they have ‘study time,’ where in the afternoon, they get to go and ‘study’ — while they also, no doubt, are hitting golf balls. . . . It ends up being a very slanted educational program, it’s the only one that’s going, and it’s awfully nice to hang out on the beach and think about antitrust law.”

Indeed, the agenda for an upcoming, weeklong “Economics Institute for Federal Judges & State Supreme Court Justices,” scheduled to be held in March next year at the Henderson Beach and Spa Resort in Destin, Florida, features ample “study time,” “afternoon breaks,” and free time. Educational programming effectively concludes at 12:15 p.m. each day.

“There’s nobody else who does this,” Fredrickson said of GMU’s Law and Economics program. “They are the ones who got in the business of offering these judicial educational seminars early on, and there’s been nobody with deep pockets who has stepped up to do the same. . . . The major donations that have come in from Barre Seid and from the Koch Brothers into George Mason have enabled them to put on these programs.”

The Federalist Society’s judicial reimbursements don’t sound quite as posh — or so conspicuously like vacations. Generally, the judges are there to give lectures or speak to local lawyers or law students.

Still, the group is constantly shipping judges all over the country. In 2021–22, the Federalist Society reimbursed judges’ travel to Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington state, and Washington, DC.

“The whole thing is really troubling,” said Fredrickson, who previously served as the president of the American Constitution Society (ACS), the much smaller, liberal counterweight to the Federalist Society.

While Fredrickson noted that ACS doesn’t have the budgetary resources for similar events, she said, “I don’t think that organizations like the Federalist Society — or maybe even like ACS, which is definitely less hard-edged than the Federalist Society — [should] be offering these kinds of junkets to judges. It’s not appropriate for the role that they are supposed to play in our judicial system.”

“When Do They Have Time to Be Judges?”

The federal judicial reimbursement data reviewed by the Lever shows more than one hundred federal judges accepted paid travel-related expenses from GMU or the Federalist Society between 2021 and 2022.

Some judges stand out for the frequency with which they are traveling on those institutions’ dime — specifically, judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. These judges disclosed receiving at least fifty-four reimbursements provided by the Federalist Society or GMU.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Sutton, appointed by George W. Bush, listed forty-two reimbursements in 2021 and 2022, more than any other federal judge whose financial disclosure forms were available online. GMU and the Federalist Society accounted for twenty of Sutton’s reimbursements.

Last year, the records show, the National Security Institute at GMU’s Antonin Scalia Law School sent Sutton to Padua, Italy, to teach and meet with students, according to his annual disclosure. The Federalist Society sent Sutton to Alabama, Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Utah, Virginia, and Washington, DC, to present lectures and participate in conference panels.

Judge Chad Readler, who was appointed by Trump in 2019, listed twenty-four reimbursements, twenty of which were provided by GMU and the Federalist Society.

Judge Amul Thapar, appointed by Trump in 2017, listed 14 reimbursements in 2021. Eight of those travel-related expenses were paid by the Federalist Society. Thapar and Sutton are both known as top “feeder judges”; many of their law clerks go on to work for Supreme Court justices.

Asked about the judges’ travel, Fredrickson joked: “Sounds pretty nice. When do they have time to be judges?”

The Sixth Circuit did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Earlier this year, Sutton issued an opinion striking down a buffer zone law designed to prohibit antiabortion activists from harassing patients and blocking the sidewalk in front of an abortion clinic in Louisville, Kentucky.

This fall, Sutton and Thapar issued a decision allowing Tennessee and Kentucky to enforce laws banning gender-affirming care for minors, meaning that doctors must stop using puberty blockers, hormones, and surgeries to treat transgender youths. The ruling acceded to the demands from Tennessee’s Republican attorney general and twenty-one other GOP state attorneys general who filed an amicus brief in the case.

Leo’s dark money network has long been the top financier of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which elects GOP law enforcement chiefs and helps coordinate their efforts to influence policy and shape judicial decisions. The Leo network donated $1 million to the association earlier this year and $6.5 million in the 2022 election cycle, according to data from Political MoneyLine.

The Sixth Circuit case on gender-affirming care could soon come before the Supreme Court and its conservative supermajority, as the families and physician involved in the case have petitioned justices to review the lower court’s decision.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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