A Houston federal judge who set aside a $100 million verdict against BP on Tuesday has taken an all-expenses-paid educational junket that was partially funded by the oil giant.
In 2008, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt attended a three-day long program in Sedona, Arizona hosted by the George Mason Law & Economic Center (LEC), a non-profit organization that has drawn fire for hosting judicial conferences funded in part by big oil and other corporate entities that appear in court before federal judges. LEC has traditionally used the funding to pay for judges' airfare, meals and hotel accommodations, which are often at posh resorts.
Three years ago, federal Judge Andrew Kleinfeld got into hot water after reducing the penalty against Exxon Mobil for the Valdez oil spill when it came out that he had taken trips with LEC that were partially funded by Exxon. LEC, which is loosely affiliated with George Mason University's law school in Virginia, has maintained that it adheres to all legal and ethical rules and that its seminars are purely for educational purposes.
Hoyt's deputy clerk, Diane Palacios, tells Hair Balls that Hoyt has declined to comment.
When news of Hoyt's ruling hit the papers on Tuesday, Hair Balls dialed up Hoyt's financial disclosure report for 2008, the most recent year readily available. Under reimbursements, Hoyt listed a LEC seminar that he attended in July. Next, we pulled up who funded the seminar, which must be reported to the federal judiciary. There, on page 63, we saw that the seminar Hoyt attended was held in Sedona and that BP America was among the funders.
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Watchdog groups in the past have accused LEC of influencing judges' opinions with pro-business-interest educational seminars. At the very least, critics have argued, the appearance of a conflict of interest threatens to undermine judicial integrity.
This does not, however, mean that Hoyt was improperly influenced. The seminar he attended was a year before he was put on the BP case and it was about Abraham Lincoln, far less suspicious-looking than if he had attended one of LEC's lectures on environmental issues or negligence, strict liability and causation.
LEC additionally claims that judges who attend its programs do not meet the standard for recusal, citing on its website a federal court decision which states that a judge who attended a similar junket did not have to step down "from a case involving a corporation that had contributed between 3 to 6 percent" of the funding for the program "because no one could reasonably doubt the judge's impartiality in the case."
Now, we're not saying that a judge can't go learn about ol' Honest Abe, but if we were the refinery workers who just had $100 million yanked away from them by a judge who got an all-expense paid trip to Sedona, funded in part by BP, we can't say we'd be all that pleased. At the very least the plaintiffs might wish that they had the chance to pay for a trip for the judge, too.