Senate Republicans are not ruling out calling for hearings on a judicial conference in Hawaii that has raised eyebrows, but lawmakers say they are reserving judgment until they get a response to a set of questions sent by leading GOP members of the Senate Judiciary and Budget committees.
“I would be interested to see what Judge Kozinski’s response is,” Minority Whip Jon Kyl said, referring to Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “It doesn’t look good after all these administration boondoggles.”
But, the Arizona Republican said, “let’s see what the response is first and then we can make that decision” about whether to have hearings.
On Monday, Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) sent a letter to Kozinski questioning the wisdom of a court conference scheduled for August in Maui, Hawaii.
“We are concerned about the overall cost of this conference and do not believe that discussions about the administration of justice would be less successful were they held somewhere other than a spa and resort in Hawaii,” the letter said.
Kyl said the conference hits a nerve, particularly after the General Services Administration held a 2010 conference in Las Vegas that cost more than $800,000.
“The judges need to be judicious about where they hold their conferences,” Kyl said.
Of course, the circumstances of the judicial conference are markedly different, primarily because it deals with a separate branch of government that has bristled in the past at intrusions on its affairs by the legislature.
Indeed, Circuit and Court of Appeals Executive Cathy A. Catterson said in a statement that a “response will be forthcoming.” But she also took aim at the separation of powers and defended the conference.
“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,’” Catterson said. “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.”
Still, Congress controls the purse strings, and Sessions hinted that it might use them to rein in judiciary spending.
Sessions noted that other circuits have already cut back on conferences.
“I think in their budget request they need to be prepared to accept less money for conferences and travel” in future appropriations, he said.
Sen. Mike Lee, who served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, said he had not seen the details of the letter but noted that “the optics are bad.”