Federal court defends judicial conference at Georgia resort

Even as automatic budget cuts force various federal agencies to cut spending, a group of federal judges from the Atlanta-based Eleventh Circuit went ahead with their 2013 Judicial Conference last week, spending several days - and maybe several hundred thousand dollars - at a golf resort and spa in Savannah, Georgia.

"The Eleventh Circuit did not cancel the 2013 conference because it is an infrequent and valuable meeting of judges and attorneys that improves the administration of justice within the circuit," said James Gerstenlauer, the Chief Executive of the Eleventh Circuit, as he defended the legal gathering.

"In addition, there were significant financial costs associated with cancelling the conference because of contractual guarantees made to the hotel and the conference center," Gerstenlauer added in an email.

The gathering of 167 federal judges from Georgia, Florida and Alabama came just weeks after the Chief Judge for the Eleventh Circuit was quoted on a legal web site as saying the $85 billion sequester was having a "devastating impact" on the federal judiciary.

The last judicial conference held by the Eleventh Circuit was in May of 2011 at the Swan Hotel in Orlando, Florida; Gerstenlauer said that gathering cost "about $211,000 in travel and lodging expenses" for 159 judges.

"The government travel costs for the 2013 conference are not yet compiled," Gerstenlauer said.

No figures were made available for other costs, like event planning or the cost of the convention facilities used by the meeting.

A search of the internet turned up cached copies of web pages advertising a "Savannah Historic Trolley Tour" for the conference on the afternoon of May 2, and a "Savannah Haunted Trolley Tour" the next day.

This year's conference was held May 2-4 at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa, which bills itself as a place where "Southern charm meets modern luxury."

http://www.flickr.com/photos/95476565@N08/8724773528/sizes/l/in/photostream/

The destination was clearly popular with this year's Judicial Conference attendees, as noted on the Eleventh Circuit's web page about the gathering.

"We have reached our registration capacity for the 2013 Eleventh Circuit Judicial Conference," the site proclaimed. "We appreciate the tremendous interest we have received in the Conference."

While that information was on the Eleventh Circuit web site earlier this week, it was taken down soon after an inquiry into the costs associated with the gathering, though the cached web page can still be located with an internet search.

The theme of the conference was, "Justice, History, and Civil Liberties," and featured "historical presentations about Thomas Jefferson and the trial of the slave ship Wanderer."

"No taxpayer funds were spent for speakers for the conference or for the slave ship Wanderer presentation," Gerstenlauer said.

As for other judicial circuits, some are going forward with their judicial conferences this year, while others have held off.

+ The 2013 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference in Monterey, California was postponed until 2014 because of budget concerns.

+ After scrapping their 2012 conference, the Tenth Circuit will hold its Judicial Conference in August at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

In a quick survey of various judicial circuits, it was clear that the details of these gatherings are closely held, as information on some of the conferences are password protected on the circuit web sites.

"Conference topics were relevant to the business of the courts and the administration of justice within the Eleventh Circuit and provided the basis for thoughtful discussion among members of the bench and bar," Gerstenlauer told me, though some of the schedule information included other items.

For example, on the Friday of the conference, there were "presentations on healthy living" and a lunchtime appearance by the author of a book that used Savannah as a backdrop.

The "highlight of the conference" was the Supreme Court Justice Roundtable; one person who attended the meeting said Justice Clarence Thomas was one of those at the gathering, though that was not confirmed by the Eleventh Circuit.

Here is the full statement sent to me by the Eleventh Circuit:

Circuit judicial conferences are authorized by federal statute to be held annually or biennially for the purpose of "considering the business of the courts and advising means of improving the administration of justice within the circuit."  Since 1997, the Eleventh Circuit has held conferences only every two years in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs.

The Eleventh Circuit's biennial conferences represent the only time all of the Eleventh Circuit court of appeals, district, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges have the opportunity to meet with lawyers who practice in the federal courts within the circuit.  Conference topics were relevant to the business of the courts and the administration of justice within the Eleventh Circuit and provided the basis for thoughtful discussion among members of the bench and bar. The programs also qualify for continuing legal education credit in the states within the circuit.  Conference evaluations have been extremely favorable.

The theme of the 2013 conference was "Justice, History, and Civil Liberties."  In addition to presentations by distinguished speakers and informal discussions during breaks and meals, the program featured planned roundtable discussions among judges and attorneys about a wide range of relevant professional issues.  Facilitators guided the discussions by presenting video scenarios prepared by the Federal Judicial Center and the American College of Trial Attorneys.

On Saturday morning, the Eleventh Circuit and the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia hosted roundtable discussions concerning professional responsibilities for federal judges, experienced attorneys, and newer members of the bar.  The morning concluded with admission ceremonies for the bars of the United States Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and the District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.

The 2013 Eleventh Circuit conference was attended by 167 federal judges, and 309 attorneys.

Judges and private attorneys participated in planning the 2013 conference. The committee members attended only two planning meetings in person, one of which was conducted early in the morning of the opening day of the 2011 conference and the other at the 2013 conference site.  All other planning meetings were conducted by video teleconference.

No taxpayer funds were spent for speakers for the conference or for the slave ship Wanderer presentation.

Attendees received retractable pens, which cost approximately 58 cents each; no taxpayer funds were used to purchase the pens. No gifts were provided to conferees.

The Eleventh Circuit did not cancel the 2013 conference because it is an infrequent and valuable meeting of judges and attorneys that improves the administration of justice within the circuit.  In addition, there were significant financial costs associated with cancelling the conference because of contractual guarantees made to the hotel and the conference center.

The travel expenses for federal judges were paid with government funds pursuant to travel regulations.  No reimbursements were provided for either their spouses or family members.  Attorney attendees paid a $375 conference registration fee and paid their own travel expenses. The government travel costs for the 2013 conference are not yet compiled.

The Eleventh Circuit rotates its conference locations among the three states that compose the circuit – Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.  In 2011, the Eleventh Circuit met in Florida.  The Administrative Office of the United States Courts calculated that about $211,000 in travel and lodging expenses were paid for the 159 judges who attended the 2011 conference.

Sincerely,


James P. Gerstenlauer
Circuit Executive
United States Court of Appeals
Eleventh Circuit


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