Federal judge conference in Hawaii scrutinized

In the wake of the glitzy GSA conference in Las Vegas that refocused attention on wasteful spending, Nevada tourism leaders feared that resort destinations would get a bad rap from the government.

Bad rap or not, several U.S. senators now are challenging a federal judicial conference scheduled for August at a beachfront hotel in Maui.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., began asking questions Friday about the 2012 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, not the least being why it was being held at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa.

Circuit judges, district judges, bankruptcy judges, magistrate judges, court clerks, probation officers and law school deans from Nevada, eight other western states, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands are invited to the Aug. 13-16 conference in Hawaii.

Also scheduled to attend: Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, according to the Washington Examiner that reported the conference could cost taxpayers as much as $1 million.

"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 senators said in a letter sent to Judge Alex Kozinski, the chief judge of the San Francisco-based circuit.

The senators asked for an explanation of how that destination came to be chosen, what others were considered, why they were rejected and why the whole event couldn't be conducted by teleconference instead.

They also asked for a detailed accounting of how much has been spent already, what the conference per diem will cover and whether family members will be paying their own way.

The senators noted that the conference schedule included options for tennis, yoga, snorkeling, surfing and dance lessons, and a Maui tour among other diversions.

"While the (conference) site makes clear that government funds are not to be used for any recreational or sporting activities and that court-related matters will be substantively considered, the program reads more like a vacation than a business trip," they said.

Cathy Catterson, the executive officer for the Ninth Circuit, said a response was being prepared for the senators.

"The Ninth Circuit is fully aware of its responsibilities as a steward of public funds," Catterson said in a statement posted to the conference's website.

"Costs for lodging and air travel to attend the conference are comparative to those found at mainland venues," Catterson said. "Any sporting and recreational activities are paid for by individuals and are not reimbursable."

Sessions, interviewed on the "Fox and Friends" show this morning hinted that if there is money available to be spent on events like this, Congress may take a look at the budget for the courts

"Ultimately, the Congress has the power to appropriate money, and we need to evaluate the judicial branch budget request in light of some of these expenditures," he said.  "The sooner we get the message down to the lowest level of government that this country's got to change the way we handle the taxpayer's money, the better off we'll be."