On their honor: Judges and their assets
By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 04/13/98 22:50
A federal judge, seeking to restore confidence in the judiciary, took the unusual step Monday of making a list of his assets available for anonymous review by the public.
District Judge Scott O. Wright filed a copy of his new financial disclosure form with the clerk of courts at the federal courthouse in Kansas City. Wright hopes the move will encourage judges across the country to do the same.
"Anybody who wants to come in and see it, they are free to do so," Wright said of his form.
In addition, Wright said he plans to recommend other methods for identifying and avoiding conflicts of interest during a meeting next month of judges from the Western District of Missouri.
Wright said he made the decision last week while reading a series in The Kansas City Star. The stories revealed that federal judges repeatedly presided over lawsuits in which they had a financial stake, despite federal laws prohibiting such conflicts of interest.
The series also showed that court officials make it uncommonly difficult to review judges' disclosure reports.
The reports are available only in Washington. You must order them using a special request form available only from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. All requests must be notarized. And before you see a single page, court officials warn the judge that you are probing his finances.
Taken altogether, the restrictions make judges' disclosure forms far more difficult to obtain than those filed by the president or members of Congress.
Wright, who had no conflicts identified in The Star's study, said the rules stop most lawyers and litigants from reviewing the forms. No one wants to risk angering a federal judge, he explained.
In fact, Wright said that during his 19 years on the federal bench, no one but The Star had looked at his list of assets.
"I didn't realize getting this information from the Administrative Office was so intimidating," he said.
Chief Judge D. Brook Bartlett could not be reached for comment Monday concerning Wright's plans. G. Thomas Van Bebber, chief judge of the District of Kansas, said he had no opinion on the matter.
Wright said he was stunned by The Star's study, which found that area judges had entered more than 200 court orders in lawsuits while owning stock in at least one of the litigants. The orders spanned more than 33 cases.
"It never occurred to me that there had been that many violations," Wright said. "I would be willing to bet the same thing is happening all over the country.
"We don't want something like this to happen again."
Several judges found to have conflicts of interest said they already have taken steps to prevent future problems.
Wright predicted the investigation will spark changes nationwide.
"I can guarantee you that things are going to be tightened up a little bit, from the top on down," Wright said. "There is going to be something done about this."
Federal judges, he said, "are stirred up about this thing -- as they should be. They are considerably embarrassed."
Wright's decision to make his assets public was applauded by Washington lawyer James C. Turner, executive director of the legal reform group HALT.
"That is the type of leadership that can go miles toward doing what Congress has been unable or unwilling to do, in terms of injecting some real oversight," Turner said. "Guys like that (Wright) really give me some hope."
Turner said he would like to see congressional hearings on The Star's findings.
Legislators on the Senate and House judiciary committees were on break last week and this week and unavailable for comment. But staffers said lawmakers plan to address the findings when they return to Washington next week.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary committee, last week issued a statement through his office, saying both the Senate and court officials should look further into the conflicts.
"The strength of the judicial system is its perceived objectivity," Grassley said. "If that objectivity is challenged, it can undermine public confidence in our federal court system."
Meanwhile, litigants who want to see whether their judge has a conflict of interest can look at The Star's Web site at www.kcstar.com/judges. There they can review the forms filed by federal district judges from the Kansas City area for fiscal year 1996.
Court officials in Washington said no one ever before had made judicial disclosure forms available directly to the public on the Internet. During the first three days on the Web site, the disclosure pages were viewed more than 2,000 times.
In addition, more than 70 people called or wrote The Star last week in reaction to the series. They overwhelmingly called for greater disclosure among judges and for more accountability when judges are found to have violated conflict of interest laws.
"I'm just horrified," said B.J. Renfrow of Fairway. "When you go to court, the person who sits on that bench has life and death power over us."
Judge Wright said reactions such as that are reason enough to seek reform.
"The public just can't understand it," Wright said of the problems found by The Star. "And I just don't blame them."