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Court defies Congress, heads to Hawaiian junket

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Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Campaign 2012

This weekend, judges, lawyers and staff of the country's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will convene in Maui, Hawaii, for a government-funded conference that they refused to cancel despite pressure from Republican lawmakers who balked at the junket's $1 million price tag.

Two Supreme Court Justices, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, will attend the three-day event and are scheduled to speak briefly on the conference's final day. Their mere presence will add tens of thousands of dollars to the conference's security costs, law enforcement sources told The Washington Examiner.

Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski recently told Congress it was too late to cancel the event, which was booked two years in advance. Senate aides dispute that claim. After combing through the contract, the aides determined that the court could cancel the event by paying a penalty fee that would save most of the taxpayers' money.

"In hindsight, had we foreseen the nation's current fiscal problems, we may have chosen a different site for this year's conference," Kozinski wrote to Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. last week. "But ... canceling contracts at this late date is just not feasible and we remain convinced that the conference will improve the administration of justice within the circuit."

Taxpayer watchdog groups disagree with the court's decision, which comes just weeks after Congress skewered the General Services Administration for handing out $44 million in bonuses to government workers and for holding dozens of often-lavish conferences.

"In this financial climate, the Ninth Circuit should have erred on the side of common sense and financial savings, and reconsidered the location and the number of attendees," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight.

A court official told The Washington Examiner on Thursday that cancellation would have resulted in "enormous penalties."

Grassley and Sessions asked the court to cancel or move the conference nearly three months ago after learning of the event's potential price tag. Contracts provided to senators by the court show that the only nonrefundable fee would have amounted to about $2,500.

Senate aides said the court could have at least saved money by booking cheaper rooms at the Hyatt Resorts Hawaii, where some of the reserved ocean-view rooms cost as much as $1,500, a contract shows. The maximum government per diem for judges is $397 a day.

"This does not mean the per diem is exceeded, as they are likely part of a larger price agreement," Republican aides noted in reference to the high-priced rooms. "But it does indicate a lower average room cost for the taxpayer could be achieved at a less posh destination."

While the conference officially starts Monday, rooms were beginning made available to conference attendees as early as Friday, according to the contract. A golf tournament is scheduled for the weekend before the conference begins.

The conference includes a list of sidelights, including yoga, Zumba dancing and surfing lessons, which court officials say are being underwritten by private funds.

The schedule otherwise includes meetings about a range of judicial issues, such as "Tracking E-Commerce," and educational programs like "How not to get your habeas handed to you."

While the court refused to cancel this year's Hawaiian event, Kozinski told senators that in recognition of "present budget constraints" he would postpone the 2014 conference in California.

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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Susan Ferrechio

Chief Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner