WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn, who has been calling out federal agencies for “lavish” spending while they're furloughing employees and cutting services, turned his eye Monday to the U.S. courts, saying judges were still attending conferences at pricey hotels and that “wasteful” courthouse construction is costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
In a letter to the administrator of the U.S. court system, Coburn said that “in a time when the Judiciary claims sequestration will result in furloughs, canceled hearings and case dismissals, the federal Judiciary should halt nonessential conferences and excessive construction projects.”
Coburn, R-Muskogee, has been trying for years to rein in the costs of government conferences, and he has stepped up his efforts since the automatic budget cuts — known as sequestration — took effect in March.
According to Coburn, 159 judges and staff members in the nation's 4th Circuit — which includes Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia — attended a conference a few weeks ago at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, at a cost of $270 per night per person.
Last year, he said, the 9th Circuit held its conference in Maui, Hawaii.
In his letter to Judge John Bates, director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, Coburn also cited reports by the Government Accountability Office regarding the construction of courthouses that exceeded the size authorized by Congress.
“Instead of spending millions of dollars on unneeded and poorly planned courthouse construction, the federal Judiciary should properly assess these costs in advance by accounting for congressional size limits, the number of judges utilizing the courthouse, courtroom sharing and maintenance costs,” Coburn wrote.
Coburn asked Bates for details on conference spending and construction and for a breakdown of the people who are being furloughed.
Two weeks ago, a judge on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals testified to a Senate subcommittee that the judiciary had been containing costs — including those for office space — but that sequestration was hurting all aspects of the U.S. court system.
Judge Julia Gibbons said the court system's staff level is the lowest since 1999; by the end of September, she said, 8,600 furlough days will have been logged throughout the system.
“We are still trying to ascertain the impact of these cuts on court operations, but we believe the staffing losses are resulting in the slower processing of civil and bankruptcy cases which will impact individuals, small businesses, and corporations seeking to resolve disputes in the federal courts,” she said.