Ninth Circuit judges defend Hawaii conference paid for by taxpayers

Meagan Clark Contributor
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Judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals are defending their plans for a million dollar conference in Hawaii in August in the face of questions posed by two Republican senators.

The Ninth Circuit presides over California, Arizona, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii.

Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Charles Grassley of Iowa demanded explanation from Chief Judge Alex Kozinski in a letter sent electronically May 18.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the court said the expense to taxpayers is justifiable. “As part of the Third Branch of government, the Ninth Circuit is fully aware of its responsibilities as a steward of public funds,” she said.

She also explained that 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 [28 U.S.C. Sec. 333].”

The judges claim the conference fulfills this purpose, and say that their social activities will not be paid for by taxpayers. The letter from Sens. Sessions and Grassley cite snorkeling, yoga, sailing and many other activities as part of the itinerary.

Sen. Sessions is not convinced by the court’s statement. In an email sent to reporters, Sessions’ spokesman Steven Miller wrote, “This fact [that taxpayers are only paying for travel and lodging] … of course misses the entire point: why are taxpayers in the middle of a fiscal crisis subsidizing a million-dollar conference at a beach resort so that attendees can indulge in tropical recreation?”

Miller said that if the topics to be discussed at the conference were “rigorous and pressing,” the schedule would not allow for so much relaxation. “Is this conference from the Ninth Circuit being conducted with respect for the American taxpayer,” Miller asked, “and what message does it send during this time of grave financial duress?”

The Ninth Circuit spokeswoman contends lodging and travel costs are comparable to those found at mainland venues. That may be true, considering the Eleventh Circuit — which presides over Alabama, Florida and Georgia — held their 2011 conference at Disney World.

But other circuits are spending much less. The Fourth Circuit — covering Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina — held their two-day 2011 conference in Washington, D.C. and their 2010 conference in Farmington, PA. Hotel costs were $110 per night in Farmington, according to U-T San Diego. Three other circuits cancelled their conferences in 2011.

The Hawaii conference, to be held August 13-16 at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, would cost a minimum of $920 per person, according to the letter from Sessions and Grassley.

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Meagan Clark