Taxpayers Footing Bill for Judicial Conference That Sounds ‘More Like a Vacation Than a Business Trip,’ Senators Complain

By Fred Lucas | May 21, 2012 | 11:25 AM EDT

'Surrounded by 40 lush, beachfront acres, our breathtaking Maui hotel presents an astonishing array of delightful ways to spend your days and nights,' says the website of the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa. (Photo from the website)

( – Two U.S. senators are criticizing a federal court system for planning to hold its annual conference at a pricey Hawaiian resort in August.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference plans to gather at a Maui hotel that costs upwards of $230 a night – for four nights. Taxpayers will foot the lodging and travel tab, which could exceed a million dollars, Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) complained.

Aside from the business meetings, activities available to attendees include golfing, yoga, surfing lesions, snorkeling, Zumba (a Latin-inspired dance program), and a tennis tournament.

“While the [court’s web] 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 programs reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice,” Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sessions, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said in a letter to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.

The Ninth Circuit’s website says 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."

The two senators are seeking documents from the court to determine the full costs -- and any cost-containment considerations -- the conference planners might have considered, as well as the cost of gift bags, total cost of conference facilities and how much the government is paying for family members to attend.

Attendees include judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the federal district and bankruptcy courts in nine western states and two Pacific island territories; representatives of the federal bar practicing in these courts; court staff; and special guests.

The California-based Ninth Circuit, which covers nine western states and two Pacific territories, is known for having one of the most liberal and activist appeals courts in the nation.

“Technology is so advanced that people are earning college degrees online and soldiers serving halfway across the world use Skype with their families at home,” Grassley said in a statement. “Likewise, a judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise.”

Grassley also mentioned the nation’s mounting debt as well as fallout from the lavish Las Vegas conference held by the General Services Administration that led to resignations and investigations of that agency.

It’s “especially tone-deaf” of the Ninth Circuit “to plan a pricey conference after the GSA debacle,” Grassley said. “The taxpayers can’t sustain this kind of spending, and they shouldn’t have to. The court should re-examine whether this is the best use of tax dollars.”

“This conference is further evidence the federal government is in a state of financial chaos,” Sessions said in a statement. “How can anyone in Washington ask for more taxes when this culture of excess continues? Americans struggling to pay their bills are tired of watching the government throw lavish events on the taxpayer dime. They are tired of watching entire sectors of government behave in a fashion totally disconnected from the reality of our perilous financial state. At this time of fiscal crisis, America needs leadership that will restore accountability and ensure a disciplined budget is adopted at last.”

The Ninth Circuit’s 2010 conference, also held in Maui, drew almost 700 participants, costing taxpayers more than $1.1 million in travel and accommodation expenses alone, the senators noted.

Grassley and Sessions requested a full reply to their questions no later than June 15.