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Let Judges Travel; the Money Goes Far

Orange County’s employee-union bosses are unhappy about the expenses that judges and other court executives rack up for out-of-town travel to conferences. Of course they’re unhappy: They don’t get to go along.

The Times reported this week that the county spent $2.3 million in the last five years on hotel, travel and meal expenses for various court personnel. The figure also includes “training” expenses.

The judges’ thinking apparently is that if it’s good to get out of town to clear the head, getting out of the state or the country is even better.

Who can blame them? Imagine what you’d be missing in professional growth if you didn’t attend the International Assn. of Women Judges conference in Dublin, Ireland. Two Orange County judges went last year, although as with all trips out of the country, they apparently paid their airfare -- leaving taxpayers to handle only their lodging and meals.

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The union boss says the expenditures are outrageously high. He suggested that the county could send one judge to conferences who could then report back to his or her colleagues. Party pooper.

I’d argue the figure is only about $2.2 million over what it probably needs to be. However, I refuse to get on a high horse about it, because we all know most of us would gladly sign up for the trips if offered to us.

Who among us would say, “I’d love to go to Hawaii for a seminar on improving my methods of jury-instruction or gavel-gripping technique, but I insist on paying my own way.”

Not me.

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Here’s a scoop: Out-of-town travel is a neat little racket for people who reach a certain station in life. Having someone else pay when you order a bottle instead of a carafe is a sign that you’ve made it -- like buying a Lexus or HDTV. Being treated so royally is usually reserved for corporate executives or people on the public payroll.

Having arrived at that certain station in life, journalists have more conventions than you might think we’d need. We have them for black journalists, Asian American journalists, editors, editorial writers, cartoonists, investigative reporters and -- get this -- columnists.

The difference is newspapers don’t charge taxpayers for our excursions.

This year’s conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists was in Tucson. Funny, nobody told me a darn thing about it.

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I have a sneaking suspicion that the union is less outraged than it lets on. More likely, it’s trying to chalk up bargaining chips at a time when we’re all supposed to be watching our budgets. It would argue that taxpayers could think of better ways to spend $2 million that sending judges to Reno or Orlando for a week.

No doubt. Still, I’m curious what a Superior Court judge in California might learn from hobnobbing at a conference with a judge from Kansas City. Perhaps how to speak in a more decisive voice? How to keep jurors awake during those snoozes that can set in right after lunch? How Missouri law could be applied to California cases?

Wouldn’t you love to read a 500-word essay from any judge on the subject “What I Learned at the Maui Conference”?

If you get bent out of shape over stuff like this, be of good cheer: The convention business keeps America’s economy percolating. Whether it’s the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (they met in Chicago this year) or Orange County Superior Court judges, at least they’re spending money.

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Yes, it’s your money, but if our judges come back from a few days in Hawaii or Orlando even a little bit wiser from having sat at the pool and sipped mai tais on your tab, who among us should complain?

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.


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