Updated 3:33 p.m.
Two top Republican senators on the judiciary and budget committees are questioning the cost of the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference planned for Hawaii in August, saying “the program reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice.”
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) sent a letter Friday to Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, asking for information on the cost of conferences in the past as well as this year’s Aug. 13-16 conference in Maui. The letter asks Kozinski to explain why the Maui venue would be better than simply teleconferencing.
“A judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise,” Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a written statement. “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.”
The senators fail to mention that Hawaii is part of the Ninth Circuit, which covers nine western states and two Pacific island territories. Information on the court’s website states that attendees will include judges from the Ninth Circuit, as well as federal district and bankruptcy courts; representatives of the federal bar practicing in these courts; court staff; and special guests, according to a flier posted on the court’s website.
This year's program features presentations on social media, mobile computing and data mining on the Internet, recent findings in sentencing policy, and anti-trust issues in the world of sports law, the flier states. Supreme Court justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito Jr. will also attend.
The senators point out in the letter that attendees have the option of staying at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa for $230 to $250 per night, meaning that just accommodations for the estimated 700 participants would me more than $500,000.
And the senators also highlight a list of activities not related to court administration: sport fishing, a golf tournament, yoga, surfing lessons, stand-up paddle board lessons, a Latin-style Zumba dance program, a tennis tournament, a day trip tour of Maui and a catamaran snorkel trip. “While the site makes clear that government funds are not used for any recreational or sporting activities and that court-related matters will be substantively covered, the program reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice,” the senators state in the letter.
The Ninth Circuit spent more than $657,000 on travel-related costs for the 2010 conference, which was also held in Maui, the letter states.
The senators asked for financial information from the 2008-2011 conferences, including a detailed list of all “swag” – gifts and other items received for attending – that has which attendees got what items and how much those items cost.
A spokesman for the Ninth Circuit said in a written statement this afternoon that costs for lodging and air travel to attend the conference are similar to those found at mainland venues, and any sporting and recreational activities are paid for by individuals and are not reimbursable.
Judges and other attendees take seriously their obligation to participate fully in the conference, the spokesman said. The Ninth Circuit is "fully aware of its responsibilities as a steward of public funds," he said, and the conference is authorized by law.
Otherwise, the spokesman said, the Ninth Circuit is reviewing the letter, and a response to the senators will be forthcoming.