Mandated federal budget reductions have not stopped judges and other judicial branch employees from scheduling and attending lavish and costly conferences in places like the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa, “where Southern charm meets modern luxury.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sent a letter to Judge John Bates, the administrative director of the U.S. court system, asking him to “significantly reduce” spending on conferences, which has not slowed down despite being the subject of several congressional hearings in the past year.
Coburn is also demanding court officials provide information by Aug. 16 on all conferences and all costs associated with them dating back to 2008.
In addition, he is demanding the courts address costly courthouse construction that he said is unnecessary and has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. He wants the courts to re-establish a moratorium on building new courthouses and is demanding to know the number and cost of ongoing courthouse construction projects.
The courts, like other federal agencies, have operated under a reduced budget because of a federal spending sequester agreed upon by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in an effort to cut the nation’s massive debt.
According to court administrators, the federal court system has had to slash $350 million from its $7.12 billion fiscal 2013 budget because of the sequester.
Chief Judge William B. Traxler Jr., chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, warned earlier this year that sequester cuts would result in “significant shortfalls” for the court system.
The loss of funds would result in a reduction in essential services, including those for probation and pretrial staffing, “which means less deterrence, detection, and supervision of released felons from prison,” he said.
Money for security systems and equipment, drug treatment and other essential services was also reduced, Traxler added.
Court officials have said they have little flexibility to shift funds around, which resulted in widespread cuts to essential services.
Coburn’s letter to Bates challenges the courts on their claim of inflexibility, noting the lineup of conferences, including the one in Savannah, which was held May 2-4 for the Eleventh Circuit just weeks after the circuit’s chief justice said the sequester would have a “devastating impact.”
The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa, “has everything … an 18-hole golf course, the famous Heavenly Spa, 403 spacious rooms with top-of-the-line facilities, spa and mineral baths, tennis courts, water sports, and fishing activities,” according to the website, hotelsoftherichandfamous.com.
Coburn doesn’t have a price tag for the Savannah conference, but according to Eleventh Circuit court officials, a previous conference held in Orlando, Fla., cost taxpayers $211,000.
“While taxpayers expect judges will sometimes need to spend tax dollars to meet in order to share information, gather knowledge on legal topics and to gain further understanding of pressing issues in their districts, in these fiscal times, they also expect non-essential conferences to be cut when judges claim there are not enough resources for basic judicial services such as trying cases and funding public defenders,” Coburn wrote to Bates. Coburn told Bates he should “re-evaluate these expenditures and significantly reduce them going forward.”
The high cost of judicial conferences first came to light last year, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals scheduled an August 2012 conference at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa in Hawaii.
The resulting publicity and congressional hearings looking into the matter prompted the Ninth Circuit to postpone its planned 2013 conference, which was to be held in Monterey, Calif.
According to the findlaw blog, “the move ends the Ninth Circuit’s 68-year streak of annual conferences.”
But not for long. They’ll hold the conference next year.