Taxpayers foot the bill for judges to meet at resort

June 30, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

As the federal judiciary struggles amid hiring freezes and funding shortages for basic services, 150 judges from Maryland and other parts of the Fourth Circuit converged yesterday on the broad verandas, lush fairways and tennis courts of the five-star Greenbrier resort.

Their taxpayer-financed gathering will demand little work in the afternoons and barely any at night -- unless you count one banquet and a sing-along led by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Of course, several hundred lawyers pay their own way, and those who consider schmoozing part of the job might argue that they're working tirelessly.

The cost to taxpayers for the four-day conference: about $200,000.

Even some who appreciate the Greenbrier's pampering question the propriety of the trip to the mountains of White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

"As a taxpayer, I would probably complain," U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson said, while adding that the meeting offers a good opportunity to talk informally with other judges. "I think a lot of the judges have some concerns as taxpayers. Some feel it's more of a luxury than it needs to be."

Others are more direct in criticizing the annual conference, for which taxpayers will pay up to $1,000 per judge plus travel expenses. "I don't think the expense is justified on an annual basis," said U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin.

Consider the schedule for the conference, which includes district, magistrate and bankruptcy judges from Maryland, North and South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia:

Day 1: Judges arrive -- no activities are planned.

Day 2: Judges attend a morning session for about 3 1/2 hours to discuss court business. No other activities are planned until the Rehnquist sing-along that evening.

Day 3: A trio of one-hour lectures on ethics is scheduled. At noon, the six new judges in the circuit offer brief remarks. Nothing else is planned until an evening reception and banquet.

Day 4: The morning features a panel discussion reviewing major Supreme Court decisions of the 1993 term. That ends the conference, although judges on committees may attend additional meetings.

Meanwhile, conferees are encouraged to sign up for group activities that include tennis, golf, bridge and hiking. Among the resort's other amenities: three 18-hole championship golf courses, fly fishing, skeet shooting, horseback riding, swimming, and the Greenbrier Spa, Mineral Baths & Salon.

"Personally, I think it's of real value," Senior U.S. District Judge John R. Hargrove said of the conference. "Do we have to cut our own throats just because Congress won't give us more money? We still have to have training. We don't go down there and sit around."

Why not have a shorter meeting, strictly business, at a less luxurious spot?

"We tried that at least once in the 20 years since I came here," said the circuit's Chief Judge, Sam J. Ervin III of North Carolina. "The afternoon sessions were not very productive -- nobody much came.

"I think the most important thing about this conference is that lawyers have an opportunity to mingle with the judges and share their problems and difficulties."

That talk could include concerns over the shrinking resources of the federal courts. Amid a hiring freeze in Maryland and across the nation, the courts are at 84 percent of adequate staffing levels -- the lowest ever, according to a court official.

And the situation could get worse. Court officials worry about funds for court security, courtroom deputies and computers. Business that used to be done in a day in Baltimore, for example, now can take several days because of staffing shortages.

When asked how much the conference would cost taxpayers, Circuit Executive Samuel W. Phillips said about $55,000. But after acknowledging the $1,000 allowance for each judge, plus travel and administrative expenses, he estimated the cost at $175,000 to $200,000.

Mr. Phillips said he had checked many other hotels for a better rate. But the Greenbrier includes two meals in its room rate, which makes it cheaper, he said. A typical room for two costs $434 a night, although the judges receive a discount that he wouldn't disclose.

It's also one of the few hotels capable of accommodating everybody -- judges, spouses and lawyers -- under one roof, he said.

The government pays for judges' hotel rooms and meals. The cost of recreation -- at the Greenbrier, golf fees are $80 and tennis courts are $23 an hour -- comes from each judge's own pocket.

The conference alternates every other year between the Greenbrier and the Homestead, a similar resort in Hot Springs, Va.

The judges are quick to note that attendance is required -- by law.

Congress passed a bill in the 1930s requiring judges in each circuit to gather annually to consider court business.

As budget concerns have mounted in recent years, the law was amended to require a meeting only once every two years.

Several circuits have cut back to biennial meetings, but Judge Ervin said the Fourth Circuit had rejected that idea.

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