On their honor - Judges and their assets graphic
Chief judge for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals wants federal judiciary to act against financial conflicts of interest

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On Their Honor: Judges and their assets

By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 04/21/98 22:15

The highest levels of the federal judiciary should explore ways to combat financial conflicts of interest, the chief judge for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said this week.

"I don't want to see Congress jump in with more legislation," said Judge Pasco M. Bowman. "I would like it to be handled by the judiciary."

Bowman, who oversees federal courts in Missouri and six other states, said he hopes reform will be studied by the U.S. Judicial Conference, which sets policy for federal courts nationwide. Bowman sits on the conference, along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and 25 other judges.

One possible reform might be better disclosure of judges' investments, Bowman said.

He is not alone in weighing the need for change. Officials responsible for federal court administration in at least two other circuits are looking into better ways to ferret out conflicts, especially by using computers to track judges' investments.

Their concern stems from a series published this month in The Kansas City Star. The series revealed that judges here and elsewhere had presided over dozens of lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock, despite laws forbidding such conflicts.

The articles also showed how rules set by the judges ensure that their financial disclosure statements remain largely secret from the public. And they documented how the judiciary has failed to police its own members.

Bowman said the conflicts identified by the study "almost certainly" will be reviewed by one or more committees of the Judicial Conference, and very likely by the full conference. The conference meets twice a year; the sessions are closed to the public.

"This has really gotten everybody's attention," Bowman said. "None of us realized conflicts of this kind were occurring."

The federal judiciary already has critics in Congress, from conservative senators who decry "activist" judges, to the House Judiciary Committee.

"The judiciary is an independent branch of government and has been pretty good throughout history about keeping its own house in order," Bowman said.

Part of the problem may vanish on its own, he said, as judges across the nation review the study, recognize their own lapses and increase their vigilance. "We have all got to redouble our efforts," he said.

Beyond that, Bowman and other judges said fuller disclosure could help avoid such conflicts.

Federal judges file their disclosure reports only in Washington, under the current system. Anyone seeking a copy must use a special order form, which is not available in Kansas City. All requests must be notarized. And before court officials release a single page, they notify each judge of the name and occupation of the person looking into his or her finances.

Taken together, that means it is far more difficult to get disclosure statements filed by judges than those filed by U.S. senators or the president. In fact, Bowman said that during his 15 years on the bench, his forms have been reviewed only twice.

"Why should these forms be so hard to get?" asked Bowman, who became chief judge on Saturday, replacing Richard Arnold of Little Rock, Ark. "That needs to be looked at."

The judiciary should consider posting lists of judges' assets at each federal courthouse, he said. Litigants could review the disclosure statements without giving their names or paying a fee, as currently required.

"Wider, freer availability would be a major step" toward reform, Bowman said. "That is a very reasonable way to go."

Some judges worry that broader release of the information could lead to security problems. Yet court officials cannot identify a single instance where someone used asset information to harm a judge.

"I don't know how much substance there is to those concerns," Bowman acknowledged.

Officials at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees courts in Kansas and five other states, said judges there also are weighing new methods for identifying financial conflicts. Stephanie K. Seymour of Tulsa, chief judge for the 10th Circuit, declined to comment.

In Philadelphia, Judge Edward R. Becker also is planning changes. He is a member of the Judicial Conference and chief judge of the 3rd Circuit, which encompasses Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Becker is looking into using computers to automatically match lists of litigants against judges' stock holdings.

"My first task is to see to it that the problem is eradicated," Becker said of the conflicts. "We want to see to it that it doesn't happen again."

Becker said he began by sending copies of the study to each judge in his circuit. "A judge has got to know what his or her holdings are," he said.

Becker declined to say whether he favors wider distribution of judges' disclosure statements.

In Kansas City, District Judge Scott O. Wright took matters into his own hands last week and filed his statements with the clerk of courts at the downtown courthouse. Wright, who had no financial conflicts identified by the study, hopes his move will convince other judges to do the same.

"I was really surprised by how much response I've had," Wright said. "It's all been really positive.

"I think it is clearly the right thing to do."

Unlike other judges interviewed, Wright said he would welcome congressional inquiry into the problems.

"If they do their job," Wright said of Congress, "they are going to make us do some things that maybe we ought to be doing anyway."

Financial disclosure forms for local judges on the federal district court are available for free and anonymous review at The Kansas City Star's Web site, www.kcstar.com/judges.