Judges Mingle at La Costa Amid Budget Cutbacks
Judges mingle at La Costa amid budget cutbacks
Other circuits curtail meetings; the 9th is off to Hawaii next year
Enjoying the buffet breakfast are Bridget Bade, at left, a lawyer representative from Arizona, and Robert Lasnik, at right, a Chief District Judge from Seattle — Charlie Neuman
The event is costing $225,000 to put on — funded with $50,000 of taxpayer money and $175,000 in payments from attorneys who are charged to attend.
In addition, The Watchdog estimates a minimum of $700,000 will be spent on salaries of the 267 judges in attendance, which range from $164,000 to $223,500.
Each of the judges is also eligible for a $391 per day stipend for hotel accommodations and food, which could total $417,600 for the four-day conference that ends Thursday.
Those gathered are enjoying the “picturesque beauty and leisurely charm” touted by the resort at a time when court systems nationwide have been urged to limit spending to the bare essentials. The judiciary has instituted a hiring freeze amid $213 million in cuts to its $5 billion expense and salary account.
A conference session Wednesday afternoon highlighted the impact of judiciary budget cuts.
While federal law permits the conference as a means for improving the justice system, some circuits have started canceling or curtailing the conferences, citing budget woes.
Three of the 12 federal court circuits — the ones in New England, the Rocky Mountain states and some mid-Atlantic states — have canceled their next judicial conference, The Watchdog found in a survey.
Others aim to keep costs low by holding conferences at lower cost venues. For the Washington D.C. Circuit, that means Farmington, Penn., where they can stay in $110 per night accommodations.
La Costa Resort
"Nestled among 400 lush garden acres near the beach in Carlsbad, CA–but miles away from the pressures of the world–this delightful coastal California hotel is a haven of rejuvenation, comfort and escape where you can do it all or, if preferred, nothing at all."
From the hotel website
In contrast, attendees of this year’s 9th Circuit conference are paying a discounted $229 a night rate for their stay at La Costa. Rooms at last year’s venue, the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Hawaii, start at $300 a night.
The judges plan to return to the Hawaii resort next year, with a lock-in commitment that would make it prohibitive to cancel. Also, U.S. Circuit Judge and Conference Chairman Randy Smith said security and size accommodations for the nation’s largest circuit limit venue options.
Assistant Circuit Executive David Madden said work is not necessarily on hold while at the conference. Just last year, a three-judge panel convened at the Hawaii conference and remotely issued a stay on a lower court’s order striking down the voter-approved Proposition 8 gay marriage ban.
The cost for this year’s event is small for the education and camaraderie gained, Smith said.
“We not only have our general duty to do on a day-to-day basis, but we have to get a look at the world. We are encouraged to have judicial education,” Smith said. “This is the best judicial education you can find. That is what this is all about.”
Attorney Sharon O’Grady, vice president for the Federal Bar Association in the 9th Circuit, also said the cost is merited.
“The lawyers all pay their own way and the judges have whatever their per diem is, so it isn’t a big-ticket item, and to be honest, the judges haven’t even had cost-of-living raises in years and to begrudge the conference a year they are legally entitled to, to me that is really kind of a cheap shot,” she said, adding the conference “is a good chance to meet judges who don’t get a chance necessarily to socialize on a casual level with attorneys.”
Attorney Todd True, chair of the 9th Circuit Advisory Board, said the event is especially important for a district as far-flung as the 9th Circuit, which includes Alaska in addition to Hawaii.
“This is one of the things that really welds the circuit together and lets us all know we are all a part of the same court and judicial system, that we have common interests and that we can exchange views about where we have differences,” True said. “I would put this judicial conference very high on the list of things that are important to the lawyers and the judges.”
“Anytime you are in public service, you are constantly aware of how important it is to give value back to the public because you are spending their tax dollars,” Lasnik said, although he added, “I think we could probably get by doing it every other year.”
“I think it is important to look at it and say, ‘Is there a more effective way to use technology to communicate?’ and maybe cut back on some of the things, but we would really be losing something extremely valuable if we cut it out completely,” Lasnik said.
Madden said the 9th Circuit could consider canceling future conferences — after the next one in Hawaii.
“Certainly the letters going out to the judges are forecasting pretty dire circumstances, so I am sure it will be taken into consideration past 2012,” Madden said.
ashly.mcglone@... • (619) 293-1725 • Twitter @sdutAshly