The Perils(?) of Educating Judges on Economics

Cite this Article
Thomas A. Lambert, The Perils(?) of Educating Judges on Economics, Truth on the Market (January 28, 2006),

Yesterday’s New York Times editorialized on my favorite recent non-story — the one about Justice Scalia’s failure to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Chief Justice Roberts.

C’mon guys. As lesser newspapers have already reported, Justice Scalia was in Colorado to teach a previously scheduled ten-hour seminar over two days. He received no honorarium for his work. He arrived at 11:00 PM the night before the seminar began, left at 6:30 AM the day after it ended, and, at some point during the two days, managed to squeeze in less than two hours of tennis (scandal!). The date of the swearing-in ceremony was uncertain until the last minute, because the timing of the confirmation vote itself was up in the air. Of course he honored his commitment to teach the course, for which lots of folks had spent lots of money and done lots of work. One of the conference attendees, who has written about what really happened, praised Justice Scalia for “work[ing] his ass off.”

Perhaps realizing there’s no real scandal here, the Times decided to make a larger point, criticizing judicial “junkets.” It focused in particular on what it called “vacations” provided to federal judges “under the guise of ‘judicial education.'”

The term “vacations” may be stretching things. These are not the sort of conferences (like, say, most law conferences) where one can skip out on the sessions and go lie by the pool. The seminars are small (there aren’t that many federal judges after all), and one’s absence from meetings would be noticed. The seminars do seem to be in desirable locations, and the food and accommodations are no doubt first-rate, but in exchange for a comfy bed and a good meal, the judges are expected to endure day-long lectures on highly technical subjects.

What, then, is the attraction? Well, federal judges are generalists, who are expected to decide cases involving all sorts of matters on which they may have no formal training. Their decisions, then, are a matter of public record and are usually subject to review by higher courts. They therefore want to write the best, most persuasive opinions they can, and they are attracted by the prospect of acquiring analytical skills that will help them do their jobs better. In short, their motivation for attending these seminars is almost certainly not the comfy beds and good meals (we can assume that federal judges generally eat and sleep pretty well). Instead, they want to become smarter judges.

So why would the Times (along with Senators Leahy, Feingold, and Kerry, who are drafting legislation to ban these educational seminars) object? Perhaps it’s because of the subject taught at some of the most successful judicial seminars. The three most famous judicial seminars — those hosted by George Mason’s Law and Economics Center, the Liberty Fund, and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment — focus on educating judges about basic principles of microeconomics. An understanding of how markets work can be invaluable to judges charged with deciding cases involving the various complicated regulatory regimes purportedly aimed at correcting market failure.

But Senators Leahy, Feingold, and Kerry (and the Times) would prefer judges who are less economically sophisticated. Perhaps that’s because folks who understand economics are less likely to reflexively support many of the interventionist public policies preferred by those senators and the Times editorial board. Thus, the Times (et al.) would rather have judges who are a bit more ignorant of the dismal science.

How enlightened is that?