Friday, August 20, 2004

U.S. Federal Judges Don't Have to Declare Conflicts of Interest

Why should judges not disclose conflicts of interest?
August 10, 2004

Top federal prosecutors, members of Congress and even the president must make their personal finances public every year. But anyone looking for the same information on a federal judge is in for a long wait and big surprise.
Some information, or all of it, can be blacked out under an exception available only to judges. And while requests are being processed, the public waits. In 2002, it took an average 90 days to obtain a judge's disclosure — compared with minutes or a few days for those of other officials.
The whole point of disclosure is to reveal — and, at best, prevent — conflicts of interests. That's why the reports require such data as stock investments, spouse employment, outside income and gifts. When judges selectively choose what information will be hidden from public view, real-life consequences follow, particularly for those who appear before them.
Last year, for example, a New York appeals court ordered a new trial in a 16-year-old case because the presiding judge belatedly disclosed to participants that he owned stock in one of the banks involved. Legal fees in the case already had mounted to $20 million, according to news accounts.
Appeals judges also have ruled in cases involving companies in which they owned stock, according to a 1999 report in The Washington Post. And the Community Rights Counsel, a Washington public-interest law firm, has identified judges who took trips to resorts for which groups interested in litigation paid the bills.
This is just the kind of information a sweeping disclosure law, passed in 1978, was designed to reveal.
Yet soon after the law's passage, judges began building a wall to keep the public out. The first brick was laid when judges began requiring that the name of anyone requesting a report be sent to them. Then, in 1989, Congress dropped a mandate that made reports available in each courthouse. Instead, they were gathered in a single Washington office, to which the public must make requests. The exception that allows judges to edit reports came in 1998.
From 7% to 10% of the nation's more than 2,000 federal judges took advantage of the exemption each year from 1999 through 2002, according to a report last month from Congress' General Accountability Office. In those four years, 592 deletion requests from judges were granted. Each year, 13 to 15 judges got their entire reports blacked out.
Judges maintain that the release of some data could endanger their safety. But judges have failed to point to a single instance in which data from a report led to a security problem. And U.S. attorneys, who face similar dangers as they prosecute criminal cases, file reports with no special exemptions.
It's hard to imagine how listing investments could be dangerous, much less what valid excuse there might be for blacking out an entire report. The public will never know the reasons. Judges don't have to provide one, and the deletions are done behind closed doors by a committee of fellow judges.
The special exception is set to expire next year unless Congress renews it. While disclosing certain data — the address of a vacation home or a spouse's workplace — might be harmful, Congress needs to tighten the rules on what can be shielded and why.
No one is asking federal judges to divulge intimate secrets. Just to follow the spirit of the ethics law, as other public officials do.