On their honor - Judges and their assets graphic
Federal judges to provide lists of assets directly to public

By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 05/23/98 22:15

Reacting to widespread criticism, federal judges in Kansas City announced Saturday that they would provide lists of their assets directly to the public.

Judges said their new financial disclosure system appeared to go further than any other in the nation. At least one judge hopes it will become a blueprint for reform throughout the country.

Under the new system, judges will compile lists of their stocks and other holdings and then file them with the clerk of courts. Anyone may review the lists at the downtown courthouse without providing identification. And, unlike the current system in place nationwide, no one will warn the judge that someone is snooping on his investments.

"Anybody can go in, and there will be no questions asked," said D. Brook Bartlett, chief judge for the Western District of Missouri.

The new system should make it easier to spot potential ethical conflicts among judges here than anywhere else in the country, local judges said.

Judges approved the system in response to a series published last month in The Kansas City Star. The articles showed that judges here and elsewhere had presided over dozens of lawsuits against companies in which they own stock, despite laws forbidding such conflicts.

The articles also showed that few people look at the financial disclosure statements that judges currently file because the judiciary imposes tight restrictions on their release.

Those reports are stored only in Washington. The public can request copies but must use a special order form that is unavailable outside the capital. All requests must be notarized. And before court officials mail out any disclosure report, they alert the judge to the name and employer of each person looking into their assets.

Critics charge that the system is not only cumbersome but also scares off litigants who fear angering the very official who will decide the outcome of their lawsuits. Kansas City judges said they designed their new system to resolve those criticisms.

"The confidence people have in the courts is very important," District Judge Scott O. Wright of Kansas City said Saturday. "I am proud of our court for taking this very positive step. I hope that other courts follow our lead."

Similar steps are under consideration in at least three federal appeals circuits, including those that encompass Missouri, Kansas and 14 other states. In addition, a committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference, which sets policy for federal courts nationwide, plans to consider the need for reform at a meeting in August.

Some members of Congress also called The Star findings troublesome and questioned whether they should pass laws making information about judges' assets more available.

Judges from the Western District of Missouri approved the new system Friday afternoon at an en banc meeting in Springfield. Such meetings are secret, and the judges reached Saturday declined to say whether the vote was unanimous.

The new system calls for each of the district's 18 district, magistrate and bankruptcy judges to report stocks and other investments to the clerk of courts. Judges also will disclose each corporate board position they hold.

They will not, however, make available all the information that they list on the disclosure forms they will continue to file in Washington. For example, judges will not disclose the value of their stockholdings.

The judges also voted not to disclose their real estate holdings. That information could lead to security problems, Bartlett said, and might encourage fringe groups to file fake property liens.

Court administrators have no authority to force judges to comply with the new system, Bartlett acknowledged. But he said there was no reason to believe any judge would refuse to participate.

Bartlett said creation of the new system did not necessarily mean judges agreed that the old system was intimidating to litigants.

"This is an effort to go one step farther (than required by federal court rules)," Bartlett said.

Increased public scrutiny could help detect conflicts of interest, he said. "It's another way I can be advised if something slips by me," Bartlett said.

Wright, however, has said that the old system of warning judges about who was looking into their assets clearly scared off lawyers and litigants alike. In fact, Wright had already filed his disclosure statement with the clerk of courts.

"This is common sense," Wright said of the new system. "It's just like falling off the log, once you're confronted with the problem."

Wright, who had no financial conflicts identified in The Star investigation, said the findings embarrassed judges throughout the nation.

"We'll do everything we can to see that this doesn't happen again," Wright said.