The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit received bad press about its planned judicial conference in Maui in August after two Republican senators claimed the trip is too "lavish" in times of government austerity. Now, the circuit's top judge is getting hit again by Fox News and others in the media for his response to criticism about the trip.
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) asked Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski to justify the trip to Hawaii last month. In a 13-page letter to the senators, Kozinski defended the conference, writing that the conference is the most cost-effective way to conduct circuit business. It provides 500 judges, lawyers and court administrators a more engaging way to learn and exchange ideas than teleconferencing, he said.
Kozinski states that the circuit’s conferences are renowned for the quality and depth of their educational programs. And, they are authorized under law.
"The topics presented are timely and relevant, involving issues that already have or will soon confront judges and lawyers in the courtroom," Kozinski wrote. "It is the only event that brings together the bench, the bar and court administrators from all corners of our circuit."
In response, Grassley and Sessions called the Ninth Circuit "defiantly unapologetic," with "no indication of changing their financial behavior in the future." They went to "On The Record with Greta Van Susteren" on Fox News, and the story has been picked up across the country with headlines like, "Aloha Your Honor – Judges Plan $1 Million Taxpayer Funded Conference in Hawaii."
Only seven of the 12 circuit courts are having conferences this year, said Sessions, a lawyer.
"It's a time to get together. The judges like to do that. They like to invite lawyers and come together," Sessions told Van Susteren. "And there may be some benefit from that."
However, Sessions said, many judicial conferences are "totally irrelevant" to many of the participants there. What's more, he added, there are large portions of the day that are not filled with work sessions, and judges aren't required to take roll call, allowing them to engage in non-work activities.
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 accommodations alone for the estimated 700 participants would total as much as $500,000, or more.
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.