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Judges under fire for Maui conference have history of tropical getaways

Federal judges' Maui conference could cost taxpayers millions and rival the GSA scandal


Federal judges taking heat from Congress for planning a Maui conference later this summer have a long history of holding seminars in the sun. 

The Maui meet-up, scheduled for August, would mark the fourth time in just the past decade the 9th Circuit -- which spans western states -- held its annual conference in Hawaii. 

And they haven't exactly been slumming it the other years. The 9th Circuit's annual conference frequently has been held in upscale resorts and spas across the western states, even as other circuits are now either canceling the conference or scaling back. 

The 2011 9th Circuit conference was held at the ritzy La Costa Resort and Spa in southern California. Their 2009 meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency in Monterey, Calif. As for the Hawaii conferences, the judges set off for the Kaua'i Hyatt Regency in 2003, the Waikiki Sheraton in Honolulu in 2007 and the Maui Hyatt Regency in 2010. 

Now that the justices and their staff are set to return to the Maui Hyatt this year, two U.S. senators are trying to put the brakes on the convention -- or at least convince the circuit to scale things back in tight financial times. 

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"This is a big deal," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told Fox News Tuesday. "We have too much of this lack of discipline. We do not have the money to waste on these kind of projects." 

He and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote a letter to 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski questioning the conference details. 

Circuit Court Executive Cathy Catterson issued a written response to the complaints Monday afternoon defending the upcoming meeting.   

"As part of the Third Branch of government, the 9th 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 8th Circuit, for instance, has scheduled its conference this year at the Kansas City Marriott, where rates for the conference days are slightly cheaper than in Maui -- as low as $199 a night. 

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last year that three circuits had also canceled their 2012 conferences. The same article also claimed the 9th Circuit had a "lock-in commitment" this year with the Maui Hyatt. 

Grassley, though, told Fox News on Tuesday there are "cheaper places" than Maui for the 9th Circuit to hold its convention. 

"A place to have it would probably be in Montana someplace," he said. 

The Maui meet-up is scheduled for August under the banner of the 2012 9th 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 9th 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 a statement from Sessions and Grassley 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. 

The 9th Circuit has held a handful of recent conferences in less exotic locations -- including the 2005 conference in Spokane, Wash., and the 2008 conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. The 2008 conference was nevertheless held at the picturesque Sun Valley Resort.