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Judicial Gathering Raises Questions

Senate Republicans are not ruling out calling for hearings on a judicial conference in Hawaii that has raised eyebrows, but lawmakers say they are reserving judgment until they get a response to a set of questions sent by leading GOP members of the Senate Judiciary and Budget committees.

“I would be interested to see what Judge Kozinski’s response is,” Minority Whip Jon Kyl said, referring to Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “It doesn’t look good after all these administration boondoggles.”

But, the Arizona Republican said, “let’s see what the response is first and then we can make that decision” about whether to have hearings.

On Monday, Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) sent a letter to Kozinski questioning the wisdom of a court conference scheduled for August in Maui, Hawaii.

“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,” the letter said.

Kyl said the conference hits a nerve, particularly after the General Services Administration held a 2010 conference in Las Vegas that cost more than $800,000.

“The judges need to be judicious about where they hold their conferences,” Kyl said.

Of course, the circumstances of the judicial conference are markedly different, primarily because it deals with a separate branch of government that has bristled in the past at intrusions on its affairs by the legislature.

Indeed, Circuit and Court of Appeals Executive Cathy A. Catterson said in a statement that a “response will be forthcoming.” But she also took aim at the separation of powers and defended the conference.

“As part of the Third Branch of government, the Ninth Circuit is fully aware of its responsibilities as a steward of public funds. The conference is authorized by law ‘for the purpose of considering the business of the courts and advising means of improving the administration of justice within the circuit,’” Catterson said. “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.  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.”

Still, Congress controls the purse strings, and Sessions hinted that it might use them to rein in judiciary spending.

Sessions noted that other circuits have already cut back on conferences.

“I think in their budget request they need to be prepared to accept less money for conferences and travel” in future appropriations, he said.

Sen. Mike Lee, who served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, said he had not seen the details of the letter but noted that “the optics are bad.”

“I’d like to see the responses to the questions,” the Utah Republican said, adding that Hawaii is in the 9th Circuit.

In a release, Grassley said he was surprised by the possible cost of the conference and suggested that there are other less expensive options. Grassley and Sessions estimated that the conference would cost more than $500,000 for an expected 700 attendees.

The 2012 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference is scheduled for Aug. 13-16 at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa, according to the court’s website. Attendees include judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the federal district and bankruptcy courts in nine Western states and two Pacific island territories, representatives of the federal bar practicing in these courts, court staff and special guests.

Alito and fellow Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy are also scheduled to attend, according to the website.

Despite the disclaimer that attendees are responsible for their own recreational costs, Grassley and Sessions highlighted several events that run the risk of wasting taxpayer dollars, including sport fishing and a golf tournament.

“Throughout the conference there are other activities unrelated to the business of the court, including yoga, surfing, stand-up paddle board lessons, Zumba (a Latin-inspired dance program), a tennis tournament, a day trip and tour of Up-country Maui, a Gemini Catamaran snorkel trip, and an activity called ‘the Aloha Experience,’” the letter said. “The program reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice.”

Their letter contained a list of 18 questions, about half of which inquired about past conferences. The rest of the questions centered on this summer’s conference, including, “Why was the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa selected as the venue?” The letter asks for responses to the questions no later than June 15, “before any additional funds are expended towards this conference.”

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