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How economics retreats made a strong impression on federal judges


Between 1976 and 1999, hundreds of federal judges traveled to an exclusive, private retreat where they learn from famous economists. Ruth Bader Ginsburg went, so did Clarence Thomas. Jeff Guo from our PLANET MONEY podcast tells us how these retreats may have had a surprising effect on federal courts.

JEFF GUO, BYLINE: Picture this - it's 1982, and we're on an island resort near Miami. RBG has just arrived, along with 18 other federal judges. And they're about to spend two weeks hanging out and learning economics. The guy who arranged all of this, his name was Henry Manne. He was an influential professor of law and economics. And in 1976, he started a program to teach federal judges economics. Manne died in 2015. But here's him talking about it in 2005.


HENRY MANNE: All these years later, I still think it was the nerviest thing imaginable. No one had ever conceived of any idea of a private program to educate federal judges.

GUO: Manne brought the judges to swanky locations, where they would take classes on supply and demand, monopolies, taxation. And he got Nobel laureates, people like Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, to give lectures. By all accounts, these retreats were a lot of fun. And they became really popular. By the 1990, some 40% of federal judges had done the program. But the retreats were also controversial. Critics pointed out that the funding was coming from corporations and conservative foundations. And the professors mostly seemed to be teaching a conservative, free market version of economics, which was popular at the time. And according to Suresh Naidu, an economist at Columbia University, these two-week seminars had a surprisingly influential legacy. Naidu and his colleagues, Elliott Ash and Daniel Chen, recently analyzed the decisions of all the judges who attended this program before and after. And their preliminary results show that these econ bootcamps had a big impact on the courts.

SURESH NAIDU: I think we find the effects are strongest for the Democrat appointees. So it's a program that has, I think, effects on liberal judges and makes them somewhat more conservative.

GUO: For instance, they found that the program made judges more likely to rule against the agencies in charge of our environmental and labor regulations. And it may have also made the judges more friendly to corporate monopolies. Vaughn Walker, a judge who attended one of these retreats in the 90s, says people who accuse the camps of being this kind of brainwashing thing, they have it all wrong. Judges know how to be impartial. That's the job.

VAUGHN WALKER: People are trying to brainwash judges all the time with this argument or that argument. And if there's any group in society that has developed some instincts of skepticism, it should be judges.

GUO: But Naidu says, there's a kind of power in economics, even though economists aren't always right. In fact, a lot of what the judges were learning at these camps is now outdated. We kind of see it as being too reductive. But economists use math and logic in a way that can be really hard to argue with.

NAIDU: It's like, these judges that are super smart and, like, super skeptical, it takes something that's as powerful as economics to convince them.

GUO: Jeff Guo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "AUSPICIOUS PATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Guo
Jeff Guo (he/him) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the complicated forces that move our economy. He joined the team in 2022.

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