Published May 21, 2012
On the heels of the scandal surrounding one government agency's lavish Las Vegas conference, federal judges in the western U.S. circuit are catching flak from Congress for a planned Maui getaway that could cost taxpayers more than $1 million.
The Maui meet-up is scheduled for August under the banner of the 2012 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, and will include judges, attorneys, staff and "special guests" from various federal courts spread across nine western states -- including judges on the California-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While in Hawaii, the guests are scheduled to stay in the upscale Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa. And they'll have the chance to kick back with an array of recreational activities -- sport fishing, golf, paddle-board lessons, yoga, Zumba, even a floral design workshop.
The official website for the conference stresses that "government funds are not used for any recreational or sporting activities."
But Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in a letter to Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, called the activities "unrelated to the business of the court" and questioned whether the Ninth Circuit really needed to ship everyone out to the islands -- a trip that incurs substantial costs in travel and lodging alone.
"The programs read more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice," they wrote. "We are concerned about the overall cost of this conference and do not believe that discussions about the administration of justice would be less successful were they held somewhere other than a spa and resort in Hawaii."
A statement from the senators estimated the trip could cost more than $1 million -- pegging the cost of accommodations alone at more than $500,000. That factors in room rates of between $230 and $250 per night for four nights.
The government also provides a per diem -- according to the conference website, this per diem starts at a base level of $289.
Circuit Court Executive Cathy Catterson issued a written response to the complaints Monday afternoon saying the senators' letter is being reviewed while defending the upcoming conference.
"As part of the Third Branch of government, the Ninth Circuit is fully aware of its responsibilities as a steward of public funds," Catterson said, noting the conference is "authorized by law" for the purposes of considering court business and ways to improve the administration of justice.
"The conference fully adheres to these goals, providing an exceptional educational program and the opportunity to conduct numerous business meetings that further circuit governance. Judges and other attendees take seriously their obligation to participate fully in the conference," she said. "Costs for lodging and air travel to attend the conference are comparative to those found at mainland venues. Any sporting and recreational activities are paid for by individuals and are not reimbursable."
Other circuits, though, have opted to hold their conferences in less-tropical locations. The Eighth Circuit, for instance, has scheduled its conference at the Kansas City Marriott, where rates for the conference days are slightly cheaper than in Maui -- as low as $199 a night.
The Maui hotel itself is situated on Kaanapali Beach, in the northwestern corner of the island on the outskirts of the island's lush rainforests. The resort features a full-service spa, a salon, 1,800 feet of beachfront property, two pools with waterfalls, a rope bridge and an outdoor whirlpool.
The GOP senators, in their letter, fired off a slew of questions for the Ninth Circuit about the cost of past conventions and the rationale for the upcoming one. They referenced the scandal over the General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas, which cost taxpayers more than $800,000.
"Technology is so advanced that people are earning college degrees online and soldiers serving halfway across the world use Skype with their families at home," Grassley said in a statement.
"Likewise, a judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise. It's especially tone-deaf to plan a pricey conference after the GSA debacle. The taxpayers can't sustain this kind of spending, and they shouldn't have to. The court should re-examine whether this is the best use of tax dollars."