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
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
No one is asking federal judges to divulge intimate secrets.
Just to follow the spirit of the ethics law, as other public