Five Star resort weekend for federal judges

With officials from the Judicial Branch demanding that Congress end across the board budget cuts from the sequester, federal judges from the Tenth Circuit start to gather today for a judicial conference at a “five star” Colorado resort that features three golf courses and a “scenic mountain backdrop.” 

The Tenth Circuit gathering at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs was postponed from a year ago because of budget concerns, but court officials argue canceling the gathering entirely would have actually cost taxpayers money.

“We again considered canceling the conference when the sequester occurred, but the hotel cancellation fees made it more cost-effective to proceed,” said Tenth Circuit Executive David Tighe in an email.

Asked about costs, Tighe provided a basic rundown, saying that 99 federal judges attended the last Tenth Circuit gathering, which was also at the Broadmoor.

“The primary cost of judicial conferences is judges’ travel and lodging, and in 2010, that totaled approximately $191,000,” Tighe said.  The Tenth Circuit covers federal judges in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.

broadmoor

Such spending by federal judicial circuits caught the eye of Congress earlier this month, as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) asked federal judges to justify why they are spending taxpayer dollars on what he labeled “jet set judicial junkets.”

“Government officials, including judges, can’t publicly claim small sequester cuts are devastating while continuing to attend posh junkets on the taxpayer’s dime,” said Coburn, who has been a frequent critic of Obama Administration sequester claims.

In a recent letter to the head of the administrative office of federal courts, Coburn noted a series of judicial retreats for various federal circuits in 2013, with destinations that included the Greenbrier Resort (Fourth Circuit), the Broadmoor Hotel (Tenth Circuit) and a golf resort in Savannah, Georgia (Eleventh Circuit).

Meanwhile, the Third Circuit already has posted a “Save the Date” web page for its judicial conference set for May 7-9, 2014 at http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/save-date.

hershey1

“High Conference Attendance Expected,” it says in red letters on the page headlined by “Save the Date!” with a picture below of the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, Pennsylvania, emphasizing that this will be the “First Bench Bar Conference in 3 Years.”

Irnoically, the sequester came up at this year’s Fourth Circuit gathering at the Greenbrier, which labels itself, “America’s Resort” in West Virginia. At that meeting, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts spoke to fellow judges and publicly complained about across-the-board budget cuts.

“The cuts hit us particularly hard because we are made up of people,” Roberts said, adding that the courts are not like the Pentagon, where weapons systems can be delayed instead of cuts to personnel.

To Sen. Coburn, that’s the point – “there are numerous other areas in which the Judiciary could reduce costs to save money.”

Coburn’s letter requested the following information:

+ The total cost of all federal judicial conferences between 2008-2012
+ The cost of planning trips for such conferences
+ The number of furloughs by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts from the sequester
+ The number and amount of bonuses being paid to Judicial Branch employees

Like other government agencies, when various judicial circuits have been asked about these conferences, the argument is that the gatherings are beneficial for all involved.

“We recognize that the biennial meetings of our circuit’s judges and attorneys provide valuable continuing legal education as well as an opportunity to interact socially,” the Tenth Circuit said in a statement delaying the 2012 conference to this weekend.

“We hope to resume holding these meetings when the Judiciary’s funding situation improves,” it added back in July of 2011.

Has the “funding situation” improved for the federal courts since then? Not according to Chief Justice Roberts and others.

But the judicial conferences will go on. Looks like a nice bowling alley for this weekend at the Broadmoor.