By JOHN BADEN
BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Though America's urban intellectuals may have a difficult time accepting this, Big Sky Country today is somewhat like Greenwich Village in the 1950s, Harvard Square in the '60s, and Berkeley and Madison in the '70s, without the smoke: a place where intellectual diversity is respected and ideas of all sorts peacefully coexist.
That's why we were shocked when political activists 2,000 miles away in Washington suddenly started attacking the educational seminars for federal judges that we co-sponsor with Montana State University. Who are these people, we wondered? What could they possibly dislike about programs where federal judges meet to study and argue with some of the brightest intellectual superstars in America?
We soon found out. Our critics had an axe to grind. They didn't like our "libertarian" point of view -- not that we ever tried to impose our view on others. They didn't like our seminar program. And they especially didn't like the fact that federal judges would come all the way out here, where the political establishment couldn't keep an eye on them, and schmooze quietly with academics. That would have to end.
But it won't end. After putting up with this manufactured controversy for several years, the Judicial Conference of the United States, the panel of distinguished judges that oversees the federal judiciary, has ruled that the intellectual free-for-alls we (and others) provide are valuable and should continue.
Organizations that host such programs -- such as the Aspen Institute and the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University -- must publicly disclose program details, names and qualifications (is a Nobel Prize OK?) of speakers, and information on funding, all of which we have done for more than a decade. Judges who attend the programs must notify the courts and file written financial disclosures if their travel and lodging, etc. have been subsidized or paid for by the sponsoring institution. Fair enough.
As even our critics must realize, American justice, prosperity and social cohesion rely on a well-informed, independent judiciary.
It should not be necessary for judges to end their educations the day they take the oath of office. Lifetime learning is as important to someone sitting on the federal bench as it is to a doctor, auto mechanic or journalist. Things change; our understanding of things changes; judges need to stay informed. Nor should judges be expected to live in a bubble. Or have contact with only an "approved" list of fellow citizens. An independent judiciary does not have to seal itself off from society.
Judges are among America's most important decision-makers. Unlike others, however, they can't spend a lifetime developing special expertise in a narrow policy area, such as water quality, the economics of mass transit or port security. Judges are generalists.
Yet, judges are called upon to rule in cases involving highly complex medical, scientific, technological and economic questions. No sensible person can possibly argue that a judge's rulings will be weakened if he or she understands the concepts and issues involved. That's what our educational seminars attempt to provide: knowledge, understanding, perspective.
The Judicial Conference advisory committee's ruling was clear: "In view of the compelling need for and many benefits of continuing education, the committee believes that neither the Judicial Conference nor any other entity should seek to limit judges' access to knowledge or censor their right to increase their knowledge."
These are not new ideas. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist addressed the same matter in 2001 in remarks to the American Law Institute. "The notion that judges should not attend private seminars unless they have been vetted and approved by a government board is a bad idea," Rehnquist said. "It is contrary to the public interest in encouraging an informed and educated Judiciary, and contrary to the American belief in unfettered access to ideas."
The one thing that all of the organizations sponsoring such educational programs believe is that a broadly educated federal judiciary serves important legal and societal goals. Constructive policy innovations -- and sound decisions -- are advanced by civil discourse and the exposure to a rich mix of ideas, not by blind conformity.
The courts have spoken. Let the learning continue.
John Baden is chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, Bozeman, Mont. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services