On their honor - Judges and their assets graphic
Two seek inquiry into federal judges' conflicts of interest

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On Their Honor: Judges and their assets

By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 04/24/98 22:15

Two members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee are calling for a congressional inquiry into financial conflicts of interest among federal judges.

Reps. Howard Coble and Ed Bryant said Congress should examine the conflicts and consider remedial legislation, especially ways to make judges' assets known to the public.

"I don't think that judges' financial holdings ought to be insulated from public knowledge," said Coble, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the subcommittee on courts and intellectual property.

"I want to get some sunlight into what appears to be a dark room," he said Friday.

The lawmakers' concerns resulted from a series published this month by the The Kansas City Star. The articles revealed that federal judges here and elsewhere repeatedly had presided over lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock, despite laws forbidding such conflicts.

The series also showed that few people see judges' financial disclosure statements because the judiciary imposes tight restrictions on their release.

Coble and Bryant said congressional hearings may be needed, although they want to confer with other legislators before setting a plan of action.

"We need to approach this very deliberately and very thoroughly," Coble said. "Let's sit down in a calm and orderly fashion and determine which is the best course.

"But I think the legislative branch ought to get involved. We might want to insert our legislative oars into the water."

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts, said this month that Congress should look into the findings. He has yet to make a detailed proposal.

Coble said he was especially concerned that judges' financial disclosure statements are not readily available to the public.

Under the current system, judges file lists of their assets only in Washington. The public can request copies but must use a special order form unavailable outside the capital. All requests must be notarized. And before court officials mail out a disclosure statement, they alert the judge to the name and employer of the person who wants to see the list of assets.

Taken altogether, the requirements ensure that few persons look at the statements for fear of angering the judge presiding over their lawsuit.

"I find it very troublesome that the public cannot gain access to information such as this," Coble said. "If there is something to hide, let's correct it."

Bryant, a Tennessee Republican and former U.S. attorney from Memphis, agreed that the House should consider legislation.

"If they can't do a better job of policing themselves, then maybe it's time to change the law and make sure (they do)," Bryant said of federal judges.

Bryant described the frequency of ethical violations as "incredible." The Star's investigation identified 57 lawsuits in four states where a judge entered a court order while having a financial interest in a litigant.

"I just can't believe there are 57 such cases where the judges did not come clean and recuse themselves," Bryant said. "It violates the basic tenants of American justice.

"You assume when you go before a judge that he does not have an interest in the litigation."

Bryant said he plans to ask the U.S. Judicial Conference to explain publicly how the problem developed without being discovered within the court system. Chief Justice William Rehnquist heads the conference, which sets policy for federal courts nationwide.

"The Judicial Conference (is) out there to watch for things like this," Bryant said.

"If it's happened 57 times, how many other times are there out there? And why aren't (financial disclosure) records more available to the public, without so many hoops?"

One solution may be to post judges' disclosure forms on the Internet, he said.

"If the litigants want to look into (a judge's stock holdings), they ought to be able to do that without prejudicing the judge," Bryant said.

On Monday, the chief judge for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said he hoped the Judicial Conference would look into ways to combat conflicts of interest. Judge Pasco M. Bowman, who oversees federal courts in Missouri and six other states, recommended that Congress let the judiciary clean up its own problems.

District Court Judge Scott O. Wright already has filed a list of his assets with the clerk of courts at the federal courthouse in Kansas City in the hope that other judges will follow his example.

Earlier this month, The Star posted financial disclosure reports filed by district court judges from the Kansas City area on the Internet, at www.kcstar.com/judges. Court officials said it was the first time anyone had made the information available directly to the public on the World Wide Web.

In the first two weeks, the forms on the Web were viewed 3,200 times.

Reporter Joe Stephens can be reached by calling 234-4800, Ext. 4427, or by e-mail at stephens@kcstar.com.