(CN) – The 9th Circuit’s chief judge defended an upcoming conference in Hawaii as a serious educational event that has been held annually for nearly 70 years, shrugging off charges by two Republican senators that the conference looks like a taxpayer-funded vacation.
“Our conferences are renowned for the quality and depth of their educational programs,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in a Friday reply letter to Sens. Chuck Grassley and Jeff Sessions. “The topics presented are timely and relevant, involving issues that already have or will soon confront judges and lawyers in the courtroom.”
Grassley, R-Iowa, is a ranking Senate Judiciary Committee member. Sessions, R-Ala., the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee. In a May 18 letter to Kozsinski, the senators questioned the wisdom of the 2012 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, a three-day event that kicks off Aug. 13 at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa.
Noting the “nation’s financial crisis,” the senators expressed concern that the conference was “inconsistent” with the judiciary’s stated cost-containment ethos.
The senators’ letter tallied hotel costs at a minimum of $920 per judge for the four-night stay. If the 700 participants who attended a 2010 conference also held in Maui show up for this year’s event, accommodations will total more than $500,000, according to the letter.
“We are concerned that using the tax dollars of the American people to pay for conferences of this sort is not the most appropriate use of funds, but it is especially questionable in the economic environment that you’ve acknowledged in your annual report,” the senators wrote.
Attendees would have to pay for some for some of the hotel’s other amenities, such as yoga, surfing lessons and tennis, out of pocket. But the senators still claimed tthat “the programs reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice.”
The letter asked Kozinski to respond with details about expected attendees and “historic information” about previous conferences from 2008 to 2011.
Among other things, the letter requested “a list of all expenses, in Excel spreadsheet form, incurred by each attendee that were paid for or reimbursed with federal taxpayer dollars,” and “a detailed list of all swag, gifts, and other attendance items given to all attendees, as well as an itemized list of the cost for each item”
The senators also wanted an explanation about the hotel choice, including why they selected a venue at all. They asked why the court didn’t just hold a teleconference.
Kozinski answered many of the senators’ questions in a reply sent Friday, and punted others to the court’s administrative office. He wrote that the annual conference is authorized by federal law and has been held every year since 1944.
“It is the only event that brings together the bench, the bar and court administrators from all corners of our circuit,” he wrote. “Judges are strongly encouraged to attend – and most do – along with clerks of court and other management level court staff.”
Details about this year’s conference, titled “Improving the Administration of Justice,” are available on the conference website.
“Judges and court staff attending the conference adhere to judiciary travel regulations,” Kozinski wrote. “Most book air travel through government-authorized travel agencies, although many will seek to find less expensive fares on their own. The reimbursable portion of their hotel stay is limited to four nights. At their own expense, some attendees bring their spouses and families with them to the conference and may choose to spend additional time in the area. No government funds are expended on any recreational activities. the cost of each of these activities is borne solely by the individual. The only social gathering organized for the conference is a buffet dinner one evening. Non-government conference employees pay for this meal themselves and government employees may be reimbursed for the cost of the dinner withing hte limits of the daily meal allowance.”
Canceling the conference “at this late date” would lead to expensive breach costs, Kozinski wrote.
“The Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference is the most cost-effective way to conduct circuit business and provide an exceptional educational program to more than 500 judges, lawyers and court administrators. Live meetings are more effective in providing education and training,” he added. “They provide real-time opportunities to solve problems, exchange ideas, and achieve the human connection that powers the business of the courts.”
Sen. Grassley’s office did not return a request for comment.