An all-expenses-paid economics course for judges is close to receiving a passing grade from the committee that advises federal judges on their ethics code.
The privately financed course at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., had drawn congressional fire for involving federal judges in a possible conflict of interest.
The 12 members of the Committee on the Code of Conduct, appointed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, are not taking a final look at guidelines giving federal judges the go-ahead to attend the course at the university's law and economics center.
In the first four years the course was offered to judges, it was paid for with contributions from foundations and corporations such as AT&T, Standard Oil of Ohio, the Ford Motor Co., U.S. Steel and others regularly involved in federal court cases.
This year, the director of the Miami Center, Henry G. Manne, says he has eliminated the appearance of a conflict of interest by segregating the center's corporate and foundation contributions. The judge's course now is financed solely from foundation money.
Chief Judge Howard Markey, chairman of the ethics committee, has approved the change and "encouraged others to provide similar programs," Manne says.
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) the chief congressional critic of the course, reacted skeptically to the segregation of funds.
"I don't like it when judges accept free trips paid for by corporations or foundation offshoots of corporations," Metzenbaum said, adding he might introduce legislation on the matter.
"No member of the federal judiciary should put himself in a position where the preception as well as the reality may appear to reflect a conflict of interest," he said.
A spokesman for Chief Justice Burger dismissed the conflict-of-interest charge, saying, "The information received by the committee indicates that no corporate funds support the seminars in question.
"Judges also attend seminars at Harvard, the Aspen Institute, New York University, the University of Virginia and a number of other places. The Judicial Conference has no control over what books judges read or seminars they choose to attend," the spokesman said. The Judicial Conference is responsible for making policy for the federal judiciary. It appointed the ethics committee.
Manne vigorously defended his course and how it is financed.
"If I wasn't doing my job well, the judges wouldn't come in droves. I'm waiting for someone to come up with a better program," he said.
Manne says the center teaches economics as a science, with no intention of influencing how judges decide cases.
"Economics is very peculiar. Somehow it gets emotionally tied up with politics, and people can't think of it as a science which I do," he said.
"The judges come to me. 'This is exciting stuff,' they say, 'How do we use it?' I have a stock answer -- 'that's your problem'," Manne said.
But Metzenbaum believes the Miami course is biased against federal regulation and that it influences judges in that direction.