Federal judicial officials have chafed under the spending cuts imposed on the third branch of government by the sequestration process adopted by Congress and President Obama in 2011. Chief Justice John Roberts even said that sequestration would lead to people being “furloughed or worse and that has a more direct impact on the services that we can provide.”
But is there really nothing other than salaries and essential services that the Judicial Branch could cut? No, claims Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who, in a recent letter to Judge John Bates, director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, criticized the AOUSC for spending tax dollars on lavish legal conferences and excessive construction projects.
“We must ensure our courts are secure and provide effective administration of justice despite budgetary limits and sequestration,” Coburn said before taking aim at the portion of the Judiciary budget that could most easily be cut: Judicial conferences.
Coburn listed multiple conferences attended by hundreds of federal judges at luxury hotels as exorbitant perks, including a Ninth Circuit conference in Maui, Hawaii. The Fourth Circuit, for example, held a conference at an upscale resort outside of Washington, D.C., where 150 judges and staff members stayed at a cost of $270 per night per room, leaving courtrooms empty back home.
The Eighth Circuit conference allowed judges to participate in the College Basketball Experience. The Eleventh Circuit assembly was held weeks after its chief judge denounced sequestration's “devastating impact” — at a four-star resort in Savannah, Ga. The Third Circuit’s upcoming conference will be held at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, Pa. No word yet on the cost of chocolates per attendee.
The Tenth Circuit’s approaching conference will cost $273 per night per room and on top of that include a 9.63-percent tax, a 2.47-percent public improvement fee, a $16-per-day resort fee for single occupancy and an additional $2.50 per day for each additional occupant. Yet the judges claim there’s nothing but essential services to cut?
Coburn also points to excessive costs of courthouse construction, as described in a 2010 Government Accountability Office report that found 33 federal courthouses built bigger than Congress authorized. The Los Angeles courthouse, for example, was authorized as a 41-courtroom, 1,016,300-square-foot project, but was redesigned by the General Service Administration into a 54-courtroom, 1,279,650-square-foot project. The Office of Management and Budget rejected GSA’s redesign, forcing a second redesign that added 2 years and additional costs to the project.
Coburn wants the AOUSC to provide the total cost of all judicial conferences between fiscal year 2008 and 2012, including “airfare, lodging, leasing, rental, planning, per diem and other costs associated with each conference.” Coburn also wants to know how many furloughs were incurred by sequestration. Coburn believes the Judicial Branch should look to these areas to cut costs rather than threatening employees and public defenders with budget cuts. And he’s absolutely right.