BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – KAANAPALI, MAUI – Maui – it is considered one of the most spectacular islands in the world. Some 2,500 miles from the continental United States, and a 20-minute flight from Hawaii’s busiest island of Oahu, Maui’s stunning white sand beaches, royal blue ocean and emerald mountains offer a peaceful sanctuary to those wanting a true getaway, while its pricey hotels provide all the amenities of five star resorts.
But over the sound of rolling ocean waves, debate rages nationally about whether some 600 judges, lawyers, law school deans and guests from 9 states, and the territories of Guam and Northern Marianas Islands, should have convened here this week at the 40-acre, 4-star Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals annual conference.
The Judiciary’s decision to hold the conference here took the national spotlight on May 18, when Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Charles Grassley of Iowa, ranking members of the Budget and Judiciary committees, sent a letter to Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, questioning why during tough economic times, the Judiciary would spend as much as $1 million to hold a 3-day conference in Maui.
The Senators requested information about previous conference attendance and expenditures, and questioned why the conference had a number of vacation activities such as Zumba dancing, golfing and a beachfront Hawaiian luau that did not include “plans to improve the administration of justice.”
The Ninth Circuit Court agreed to provide information and in fact did so this week, but immediately defended its decision to hold a Maui conference.
Hawaii is a part of the Ninth Circuit as are Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington and the Territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
A statement on its web site also maintained the vacation activities were optional and not paid for by taxpayers. Chief Judge Kozinski later admitted ‘had we foreseen the nation’s current fiscal problems, we may have chosen a different site for this year’s conference.’
U.S. Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both Democrats from Hawaii, rushed to the defense of the Judiciary and its choice of Maui for its conference.
Former Gov. Linda, a Republican who also served as Maui County Mayor and is now running for U.S. Senate, asked the Republican Senators to back off from their criticism.
But Sessions and Grassley did not back down, sending a second letter on July 13, “making clear that we expected to see the contracts the Court had entered into for the conferences.”
On August 3, 2012, the Court responded and provided information on previous conferences spanning 5 years. The Ninth Circuit went on to cancel its conference in Monterrey, California next year.
On Tuesday, August 13, Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy inserted himself into the controversy when in his opening statement he said “the circuit conference is a prudent and a proper exercise of the judicial function.”
He added, “If the American public knows, and they should know, of what we do at this conference, they would be and should be immensely proud, not only the judiciary and the members of the academy and of the bar who are here, but of the idea of law in itself.”
Kennedy, who received appreciative applause from the packed conference room at the Maui Hyatt, said it is important that this conference meet frequently in Hawaii.
“There is a loveliness, even a loneliness in the Pacific that makes it fitting for us to search in quiet for the elegance and the beauty of the law. The Hawaiian Islands, a state on equal footing and of equal dignity with the 13 original states, and all of the other states, is a bastion of freedom in the Pacific. And together with our friends from Federated States of Micronesia, from Marshall Islands, from Palau, from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and from Guam, they, in a war, that is still within the living memory of many of us suffered anguish and disaster, and hurt and death in defending freedom. And it’s an honor to be here in Hawaii to celebrate the fact that it is citadel of liberty, a bastion of freedom, and we thank the Hawaiian people for their gracious welcome that they always give to us when we come here.”
All of the circuits hold annual conferences – they are sanctioned by law – and in the case of the Maui conference, the agenda is packed with everything from a debate on ethics, to the “color of justice”, to learning more about technology and how it is changing the law.
Attendees, for the most part, have tossed aside their judicial robes and business attire for shorts and Aloha shirts, but inside the conference room, they are in heated discussions about bankruptcy law, intellectual property and emerging trends on anti trust and labor law.
On Wednesday, a moderator for the Legal Ethics and the perceptions of clients and litigants forum, showed clips of CBS’ The Good Wife to spur discussion on ethics and civility. Apparently the judges and lawyers could relate because several of the scenes left the judges and lawyers laughing out loud.
On Wednesday night, many of them dawned aloha attire and an orchid lei, and attended a Hawaiian night with hula dancing and story telling about Hawaiian history and culture. Organizers note on the agenda this was not a taxpayer-sponsored dinner.
The conference wraps up today with remarks from Kennedy and Kozinski. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Alito was supposed to be here as well, but had to cancel his trip because of a family emergency.
While no judges were caught doing cannon balls in the 4-star pool, rushing down the 150-foot lava tube slide, or playing with the extensive wildlife that includes parrots, flamingos, swans and penguins, debate over judicial expenditures is not expected to die down soon. Sessions and Grassley are on the hunt for more information. In a letter from Sessions’ communication director, he said the senators have received copies of the contracts from the event, but are still seeking receipts and more information on expenditures.