By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 06/06/98 22:15
WASHINGTON -- Two U.S. senators say broad reform is needed to combat what appears to be a "disturbing pattern of judicial ethics violations."
John Ashcroft and Charles Grassley, ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, leveled the charges in a blunt letter sent Friday to the federal court system's top administrator, L. Ralph Mecham.
"An alarming number of federal judges have apparently heard cases involving corporations in which they held stock," the Republican senators wrote. "The number of unreported financial conflicts of interest indicate that reform of the process is necessary."
The letter says the problem may require wider financial disclosure, perhaps even the posting of judges' assets on the Internet.
Ashcroft, of Missouri, is chairman of the Senate's Subcommittee on Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights. Grassley, of Iowa, is chairman of the Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts.
The senators said their concerns stemmed from a series published in April by The Kansas City Star. The articles revealed that federal judges in Kansas City and elsewhere presided over dozens of lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock, despite laws forbidding such conflicts.
The series also showed that judges caught in conflicts almost never face discipline. And it revealed that few people see judges' financial disclosure reports because the judiciary imposes tight restrictions on their release.
In their letter, the senators described the process for obtaining the reports as "difficult and intimidating." They questioned why judges filed them in Washington but not at local courthouses.
Although members of the public can request copies of the reports, the letter pointed out that they must use a special form unavailable outside the capital. All requests must be notarized. And before court officials mail out a disclosure report, they alert the judge to the name and occupation of the requester.
"This notification procedure cannot help but have a chilling effect," the senators wrote. "Litigants understandably are reluctant to appear to be snooping around in the presiding judge's finances.
"These procedures appear to be in need of substantial revision."
Reforms approved last month by judges in the Western District of Missouri could be a model for a nationwide solution, the letter says. The judges plan to make lists of their assets available locally, at the clerk of courts office. Anyone will be able to review the reports without providing identification, and no one will warn the judge.
The letter asks Mecham, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, to estimate the frequency of ethics-law violations by judges throughout the country. And it asks Mecham's opinion on other ways to make judges' assets more available to the public.
In particular, the letter asks Mecham to examine the feasibility of posting lists of judges' assets on the Internet.
"We are concerned about the scope of this problem and the need for enhanced access to financial disclosure forms," the letter explains. "At the same time, we understand there are legitimate concerns regarding security and potential harassment suits. However, we believe these concerns can be addressed."
The senators' letter adds to a growing momentum for judicial change since The Star series ran.
The Administrative Office is investigating creation of a computer system that would automatically identify conflicts of interest. Independently, three federal appeals circuits are exploring other possible reforms.
The U.S. Judicial Conference, which sets policy for federal courts nationwide, recently wrote each of the nation's 2,000 federal judges and urged them to obey ethics laws. A committee of the judicial conference plans to consider the need for systemwide change at an August meeting.
The senators also are not the first on Capitol Hill to express concern. In April, two members of the House Judiciary Committee called for a congressional inquiry into the conflicts.
"We might want to insert our legislative oars into the water," Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican, said at the time.
Ashcroft and Grassley have a history of pressing for more accountability among judges. For example, Ashcroft called hearings last year on judicial activism and Grassley called for a General Accounting Office study that was critical this year of travel by judges.
"Needless to say," the senators wrote in the letter Friday, "when federal judges fail to obey the laws that govern their conduct, they send a terrible message to the public."
The Star series, "On their honor," can be read on the newspaper's Web site at www.kcstar.com. Also posted on the site are financial disclosure forms for federal judges in the Kansas City area.