Just weeks after Congress publicly excoriated the General Services Administration for spending $823,000 on an agency conference in Las Vegas, the judges and staff of the nation's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals are headed to their own lavish, taxpayer-funded conference -- in Maui.
The California-based court's get-together, scheduled for mid-August, could end up costing taxpayers as much as $1 million, according to congressional aides. That because while there's supposedly private funding available for the golf and tennis tournaments, yoga and surfing lessons, taxpayers are on the hook for airfare, meals, and rooms at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa.
Among those scheduled to fly to Hawaii for the event: Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito Jr.
"When we want to hold a conference, we walk down the hall to our conference room," Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, told The Washington Examiner. "This is another reason why taxpayers are just outraged with government across the board. It's an extra expense involved when we are going broke."
Revelations about the court's planned conference come a month after the House and Senate held a series of hearings to probe the General Services Administration's lavish spending on conferences and travel for federal employees at taxpayer expense, including the Las Vegas conference.
Now, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, are demanding answers about the 9th Circuit trip. The two wrote to court officials demanding details about the cost and scope of the trip by June 15.
"This conference is further evidence the federal government is in a state of financial chaos," Sessions said Monday. "How can anyone in Washington ask for more taxes when this culture of excess continues?"
The Grassley and Sessions letter shows that 9th Circuit judges and employees will be able to stay in ocean-view rooms that cost as much as $250 per night. When the 9th Circuit met in Maui in 2010, it cost taxpayers nearly $500,000 just for the hotel accommodations.
The 9th Circuit, which includes seven Western states, Alaska and Hawaii, is one of 13 circuit courts nationally. And it appears that most of those courts hold conferences similar to the 9th's Maui outing every year or two.
Budget cuts forced the 10th Circuit to cancel its 2012 gathering, but other courts, like the 9th District, are going ahead with their planned events even as the courts complain to Congress that they need more money for staff to handle expanding caseloads.
The 2nd Circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut and Vermont, scheduled its annual conference for the first week in June, but court officials declined to provide The Examiner with details, claiming the event is "private." The event schedule is available online but is password protected, apparently so no one but court officials can see it.
The 2nd Circuit's event will be held at the Mohonk Mountain House, described as "a luxury resort and spa" in upstate New York.
Last year, the 2nd Circuit held its conference at the luxurious Sagamore Resort on Lake George in New York's Adirondack Mountains.
Statement from Circuit and Court of Appeals Executive Cathy A. Catterson:
The Ninth Circuit is in receipt of the May 18, 2012, letter from Senators Grassley and Sessions, Ranking Members of the Senate Judiciary and Senate Budget Committees, respectively, regarding the upcoming Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference. The letter is being reviewed at this time and a response to the Senators will be forthcoming.
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." [§ 28 U.S.C. Sec. 333] 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.