Feingold-Kyl Update

Josh Wright —  14 February 2008

A few months ago I commented on the absurdity of the Feingold-Kyl amendment to the judicial pay raise bill, which appeared to be a thinly veiled attempt to target the George Mason Law and Economics Center and a few others. The absurdity with which I was particularly interested at the time was the fact that events sponsored by the bar association and state governments were exempted and so, because of the high demand for these programs, the likely impact of the amendment on the total number of these programs would be trivial. Rather, I thought it fairly transparent that the intended impact of the bill was not to reduce judicial access to these programs but to favor certain providers over others. There is also the notion that somehow judges are becoming wealthy as a result of these programs or that the programs do not generate social good — but I digress. Back to the update.

John Fund summarizes the state of affairs as they stood on December 17, 2007 quite thoroughly here. For those who need a reminder about the contents of the amendment, Doug Lederman at Inside Higher Ed sums up the bill as it currently stands (and provides a link to the actual text):

First, it would prohibit [judges] from accepting any sort of gift, income or even travel reimbursement from programs designed to educate federal or state judges, except for programs sponsored by a bar association, a judicial association, or a government. (Programs at public universities are exempted from the exemption, and so are barred, as are private colleges.) Feingold’s amendment would also limit to $2,000 the amount that a judge or justice could receive in income or reimbursement from any “single trip or event” sponsored by any entity but a bar or judicial association or a federal, state or local government. Again, public colleges, like private ones, would be subject to the limit, and a judge would have a maximum annual limit of $20,000 in such reimbursements.

As Lederman notes in his column, things have changed. First, the amendment appears to be losing its political legs. The article notes that Senator Kyl, previously a named sponsor, has “vowed to oppose the entire judges’ pay bill if the Feingold amendment stays attached to it.” Next, the American Law Deans Association, led by Northwestern Law Dean David Van Zandt, is speaking out against the amendment in the form of a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Judical Conference of the United States has also unsurprisingly chimed in against the amendment. I have no idea what political bargain might be struck with respect to the judicial pay raise bill and the Feingold amendment, but I do hope that for the sake of law schools public and private that the amendment will soon disappear and it looks like things are happily moving that direction.

Lederman’s column includes a quote from my colleague and George Mason Law and Economics Center Executive Director Frank Buckley explaining that the LEC “is by no means ideological” and that expressing disappointment that “a highly academic program, which has a list of donors and supporters from all over the political spectrum, gets singled out.” For anyone skeptical of Buckley’s description of LEC program content, please go check out the programs at LEC for yourselves. They really do speak for themselves. But allow me to allow Buckley to speak for them (from his comment on a VC post in 2006, but still pertinent to the discussion):

Does it matter that the Mason lecturers are the leading scholars anywhere, that its readings are posted on its web site, that no one has or could have a problem with them, that people like Larry Kramer, Gordon Wood, John Searle, David Bromwich, Jasper Griffin, Joe Ellis, Cass Sunstein and Marcia Angell lecture for it, that without Mason lecturers the NYRB would have trouble publishing, that lecturers are asked to stay away from hot button topics, that global warming, environmental issues, asbestosis, abortion, tobacco, etc. are simply not mentioned in Mason programs, that no judge has ever complained of the content of the programs or lectures? Does it matter that the programs are academically intensive, that there are no entertainment or hospitality events? Does it matter that judges such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg have praised our programs? And does it matter that Mason programs this year are on subjects as varied as Renaissance Humanism, David Hume, Abraham Lincoln, and the principles of microeconomics? Because if none of that matters, the complaints can be made only by bitter ideologues blinded by an ignorance of or animus against the life of the mind.

*Disclosure: As I’ve noted previously when discussing this topic, I have received summer research money from the LEC in the past.