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Decertifying Accountability

The Washington Post
August 25, 2003
James Grimaldi
Hearsay Column

One year ago, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate responsibility legislation, which included a provision requiring chief executives to sign under penalty of prosecution that their reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission were accurate.

But the U.S. judiciary has taken an opposite tack in accountability and responsibility, according to its critics. Federal judges have removed in the past few years statements from their financial-disclosure forms that certified under penalty of civil and criminal sanctions that they have not handled matters in which they or their families held a financial interest.

The form previously said, in part, "I did not perform any adjudicatory function in any litigation during the period covered by the report in which I, my spouse, or my minor or dependent children had a financial interest."

Hearsay was alerted this month to the deletion by Douglas T. Kendall of the Community Rights Council, a group that monitors judges. Kendall has followed news reports about judges who have handled cases in which they had a financial interest.

"This is an absolutely outrageous response to an ethical crisis by a branch of government that says all the time they are utterly dependent upon the public's trust," Kendall said.

Karen Redmond, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office for the U.S. Courts, said the sworn certification was "confusing" and unnecessary because it repeated something already required by law. She said the change was recommended by the Committee on Financial Disclosure, a part of the judicial conference, in 1999 and that it was "unfair" to compare judges to the new standards developed last year for chief executives.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a Senate Judiciary Committee member who previously chaired a judiciary oversight committee, said the public has a right to know about potential conflicts of interests. In 1998, Grassley wrote a letter with then-Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) asking that judges make public their recusal lists, which judges keep private, and detail those matters in which they would have a possible conflict.

"Maneuvers that are designed to undermine the greatest possible disclosure of information only breed cynicism," Grassley said Friday. "Public officials, including the federal judiciary, need to do everything possible to build public trust, rather than chip away at it."

Hearsay's fair and balanced coverage of the legal industry appears every other week in Washington Business.

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