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Judges attend lavish conferences on taxpayer dime amid budget cuts

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 5, 2013

Even as courts warn of job cuts and furloughs to their employees because of the sequester, federal judges continue to attend taxpayer-funded conferences at lavish resorts, according to a top senator who is calling on the courts to change their priorities.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and Congress' top waste-watcher, said 150 judges for the federal appeals court based in Richmond last month held their conference at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, spending $270 a night per room — and, Mr. Coburn said, leaving the court closed for business on a Friday.

"In times of limited financial resources and fear that furloughs may cause cancellation of hearings, the AOUSC should prioritize the administration of justice over a conference," he said in a letter to Judge John D. Bates, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The letter is the latest in Mr. Coburn's effort to make federal agencies square their initial dire warnings about budget cuts with the way they have continued to spend, even after the sequesters took effect on March 1.

Mr. Coburn said that earlier this year, the chief judge of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals complained about the "devastating impact" of sequesters on the federal judiciary, but weeks later his circuit hosted its conference at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa in Georgia.

Meanwhile, Mr. Coburn said hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on what he said were "unneeded" new or remodeled courthouses.

A spokesman for the courts said they will be drafting a response to Mr. Coburn, but won't comment until then.

Mr. Coburn asked for records for all judicial conference spending over the past five years.

"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 nonessential conferences to be cut when judges claim there are not enough resources for basic judicial services such as trying cases and funding public defenders," he wrote.

Two weeks ago, Judge Julia S. Gibbons, who handles budget matters for federal judges, testified to the Senate that a $52 million cut to the public defenders program was "threatening" indigent defendants' right to a lawyer.

Judge Gibbons also said that courthouse safety spending has been cut by 30 percent, and that federal courts have shed 2,100 employees since July 2011.

The sequester cut $350 million from the courts' budget this fiscal year. The courts are asking for $72.9 million in supplemental funding to smooth out some of the problems they have seen.

The first year of the sequesters has not produced the dire effects the administration warned about, and many agencies have been able to stave off the dramatic furloughs they initially warned Congress they would have to use to fill the budget gap.

But many of those agencies used one-time savings or delayed filling jobs. Those options will be tougher in the second year of the sequester, which kicks in Oct. 1.

Already, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are drawing lines that leave the government poised for a partial shutdown.

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