HONOLULU - Two Republican U.S. senators criticizing a conference planned for federal judges on Maui said the top judge for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is unapologetic and his response could affect congressional budgeting for the court one step below the Supreme Court.
A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Wednesday reiterated comments Sessions made last month that if nothing changes, the Senate may evaluate the judicial branch's budget request. Sessions is the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
"Ultimately, the Congress has the power to appropriate money, and we need to evaluate the judicial branch's budget request in light of some of these expenditures," Sessions told Fox News in May.
Sessions and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, last month called the conference a lavish event that strikes the wrong tone in a time of government budget cuts.
It's not clear what the conference will cost. The court doesn't have a list of all the travel expenses. Grassley and Sessions have said it could cost $1 million and say it would be cheaper to hold it somewhere else.
The court's chief judge, Alex Kozinski, defended the conference in a response letter last week as a gathering for serious business meetings within the jurisdiction of the federal courts in the 9th Circuit. The court serves Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, as well as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Maui was picked for its competitive room rates and cheaper travel costs because of the number of airlines serving Hawaii, Kozinski wrote, and Anchorage, Alaska, and Sun Valley, Idaho, were also considered. "At $230 per night, the Hyatt on Maui compares favorably with similarly sized hotels in Anchorage, Alaska, and Sun Valley, as well as several California destinations," he wrote.
Court officials "remain defiantly unapologetic about the conference's scale, location and itinerary in our current hour of financial crisis," the senators said in a joint statement. "They show no indication of changing their financial behavior in the future."
The senators also note that the August conference will be the fourth in Hawaii in nine years. It was held on Maui just two years ago, in Honolulu in 2007 and on Kauai in 2003. It's also been held on Kauai in 1977 and 1983, in 1987 on the Big Island and on Maui in 1991, said David Madden, public information officer for the 9th Circuit.
"It is a part of our circuit. We wish people would pay attention to that," Madden said, adding that previous venues have been in Idaho, Alaska, Montana and Oregon. "It's more often held elsewhere than it's held in Hawaii. It's often held in California. There's a great concentration of judges and attorneys in California."
Grassley, a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said the appeals court's response is lacking. "We asked for documents. We've gotten no documents," he said. "Basically, none of our questions were answered satisfactorily."
Other federal circuits have opted not to hold annual conferences, he noted.
"When they do hold them, they hold them in less expensive areas, not as long, and you don't find half the time being used for recreation as you do from the program of this conference," Grassley said of a program that highlights optional, recreational activities such as surfing lessons, snorkeling, yoga and Zumba dance-fitness programs.
Court officials have said recreational activities are to be paid for by individuals and can't be reimbursed with government funds.