KATC Investigates

Feb 26, 2014 6:40 PM by Allison Bourne-Vanneck

KATC Investigation: Part 2, Appellate judges travel expenses

Going to a conference comes at a cost. Last year, Third Circuit Court of Appeal judges spent about $170,000 in travel, and almost 70 percent of that was spent on going to conferences.

"It is tax payer money. It should be spent wisely. And if you're going to spend money going to conferences and things, you should learn and try to be a better judge," said James Genovese, an appellate court judge for the Third Circuit who's based in Opelousas.

Genovese and other Third Circuit judges said there's a reason behind all the traveling. They said conferences help them keep their jobs.

At each conference, a judge earns "Continuing Legal Education" hours, also known as CLEs. Louisiana appellate court judges are required every year to earn 12.5 CLE hours.

"Our ability to go to these CLEs, and to be more effective presenters on exactly what those cases were about and what the rulings were about, I believe it's of great value to the legal community, not only in this state but across the country," said Sylvia Cooks, an appellate court judge in the Thrid Circuit who's based in Lafayette.

"I don't think I have attended a continuing education course that wasn't beneficial to me, and I'm just one of those people that needs more knowledge to do my job," said Phyllis Keaty, an appellate court judge in the Third Circuit who's based in Lafayette.

Five CLE hours must be earned at conferences put on by Louisiana's Judicial College. And while it's expensive, going to the Summer School for Judges conference in Destin allows judges to fulfill that requirement in one trip.

But one judge received all her CLEs without spending thousands or hundreds of dollars in travel.

Looking through the travel receipts, Judge Elizabeth Pickett from Many stood out. She spent only $30 on conferences. She was reimbursed for a CLE on-demand course. We were unable to get comment from Pickett, but the judges we spoke to said they want more information than they can get online.

"I would hope that we would get to that point some day, because that means that I could do my panel, or serving on a panel, or being a speaker, I could do that from my office or at some designated place. And we could do it electronically, video conferencing, if you will. I would hope we would get to that point," Genovese said.

In addition to CLE credits, judges said there are other reasons for traveling to conferences.

"We attend CLE conferences not only to receive information, but to dispense information. (And) to give information to lawyers so they're better able to serve their clients and the people they represent before us. So there's a lot more going on than judges simply receiving certain information," Cooks said.

Cooks said she earned up more than 40 CLE hours, which was more than three times more than she needs. She and other judges said a lot of those extra hours come from teaching younger judges and lawyers.

"Most of the judges feel a responsibility to the community -- be it the legal community, or the community that we live in -- to give back, and a lot of that is for that purpose," Keaty said.

"I really don't care to just go to a conference for the sake of going to a conference, because I want to learn something. Life is a continual learning process. And that's why -- as long as you're going to do this job -- you have to stay up to date because it changes," Genovese said.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reported that all Third Circuit appellate judges got the required CLE hours last year.

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