Judges conference in Maui scrutinized

Published: May. 21, 2012 at 10:35 PM HST|Updated: May. 21, 2012 at 10:47 PM HST
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Cody Hensarling, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
Cody Hensarling, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Come August taxpayers will fund nearly 700 trips to the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa.  It's all part of this year's Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference that has senators questioning coming to the Aloha State.

Judge Susan Oki Mollway, of Hawaii, says some of the topics at this year's conference include recent Supreme Court decisions, use of social media, legal issues in sports and impact of race in the criminal justice system. Judge Mollway is an organizer on this year's conference executive committee.  She says there are more than two dozen business meetings and educational forums planned for the four day conference in August.

However some of the other activities also on the schedule have raised criticism.  Surfing lessons, snorkeling, sport fishing, an all day trip to upcountry Maui and a golf and tennis tournament are some of scheduled activities yet it is not a vacation but the working conference for judges, lawyers and employees.

"It really undercuts the logic that this is strictly a business conference that just happened to be located in Hawaii," said Cody Hensarling, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. "You'd think government agencies would be more aware of exactly how much people are hurting and how badly this reflects on government officials to be using public money to splurge."

The per diem for court employees is $289 a day for lodging and meals.  For judges it's between $397 if they take the flat amount and $433 if they itemize and submit receipts.  Airfare and rental car is paid separately but also with taxpayer money.

The total cost for the 600 - 700 people is estimated at more than a million dollars.  That is more than the $800,000 for the lavish General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas that got people fired.

Senators from Iowa and Alabama are blasting the 9th Circuit Judicial Conference and so is the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii which writes the annual pork report highlighting wasteful spending.

"$1.5 million boggles the mind for a work conference that could have been done so much cheaper. To me it just seems like they are out of touch," said Hensarling. "It is an amazing amount of excess that the 9th circuit is engaging in."

The 9th Circuit defends the conference saying plenty of business gets done.  Furthermore the conference rotates every year.  It's been in Idaho, Washington and California recently.  And if any government agency is going to follow the letter of the law you'd think it would be judges.

"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." 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," said Cathy A. Catterson, Circuit and Court of Appeals Executive, in a written statement.

They also add that any sporting or recreational activity comes out of the individuals pocket not taxpayers.

The 9th Circuit plans to respond to the senators questions later this week.

To see the conference website and schedule of events and activities click here.

Copyright 2012 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.