Judge: Criticized conference won’t be back for years

HONOLULU – Richard Clifton, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, believes Maui will host another 9th Circuit Judicial Conference in four to six years, but he’s not optimistic about it happening sooner.

The last gathering of court officials in the 9th Circuit was held at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali in August and came under fire from Republican senators, particularly Sens. Jeff Sessions and Chuck Grassley. They put the heat on the circuit, which covers western states, Hawaii, Alaska and Pacific islands, for holding a lavish event in a vacation resort during difficult economic times.

While understanding the reason for the criticism, Clifton said it was “unjustified” and “driven by jealousy.”

“I never made it in the water,” said Clifton, during an interview at the State and Federal Court Media Conference on Wednesday on Oahu. “My wife and kids had a great time, but I was tied up in meetings all week.”

Other than a family trip to Hana, the judge said he was completely busy during the four-day conference.

“Politicians like to make political points about unjustified spending, which may be true for my family members but not for me,” said Clifton, who has served on the appeals court since 2002.

People do not realize the “serious business that goes on,” the judge said of the gathering that attracts from 300 to 700 government officials, including judges, court staff and other officers.

“We’re so spread out that the only time we can communicate is at the conference,” he said of the federal appeals circuit that covers more than 15 districts and is the largest of the 13 appeals court circuits in the country. “I think it’s a real loss to not have the conference, . . . and I can’t say that (cancellations) won’t happen again.”

The 9th Circuit has already postponed this year’s event due to budget restraints, but it plans to resume the conferences next year in Monterey, Calif., he said. This year’s postponement will end 68 consecutive years of annual conferences.

The conferences rotate around the circuit in areas that can host the large contingent in one hotel. Since 2000, the conference has been held in Hawaii four times – Kauai (2003), Honolulu (2007) and on Maui (2010 and 2012).

Clifton said he believes Hawaii will host another conference because it fits many of the requirements needed to host the event. Still, he’s “not optimistic” about bringing the conference back to Hawaii in the near term.

“I’m sure there will be a request to have another conference in Hawaii, but because of political pressure I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” Clifton said.

Hawaii is one of only eight to 10 locations in the jurisdiction that can realistically host the conference, he said.

“Our group is so large, we don’t fit in many hotels,” he said. “One of the advantages with hotels in Hawaii is having everyone in the same place.”

“Right now, it’s (conference site selection) driven by physical locations,” said the judge, who moved to Oahu in 1975 and calls Hawaii his home. “It’s much easier to fly to Hawaii, than trying to get to Big Sky Montana.”

There are frequent flights to Hawaii and hotel availability as well as the lure of paradise. In a 2006 conference at Huntington Beach, Calif., Clifton said attendance was “substantially down,” partly because of the lack of interest in the location.

“Hawaii always has the best turnout,” said Clifton, a law professor at the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law. “But it really is a case where people like coming with their families.”

The GOP senators claimed that the 2010 conference on Maui cost taxpayers more than $1.1 million in travel and accommodation expenses for government officials.

Clifton countered, saying he does not know if the conference would have been any cheaper if it were held in San Francisco.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.