On Their Honor: Judges and their assets
By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 07/05/98 22:15
WASHINGTON -- Congress is complaining that federal judges make it difficult for lawyers and litigants to see judges' financial disclosure reports. But critics say recent revelations show that the problem is worse than imagined.
Newly released federal documents reveal for the first time how many of the nation's law firms reviewed the reports last year. The grand total?
Add in curious individuals and reporters, and the total inches up to 78.
"That's tiny," said Steven Lubet, a leading judicial ethicist and a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "I would have expected more."
By comparison, thousands of people last year examined similar reports filed by members of Congress.
Many lawyers blame the disparity on fear. Unlike Congress, the judicial branch responds to each request by sending written notice to the judge, reporting exactly who wants to look into those assets. The warning gives the requester's address, occupation and even his employer.
"That's really intimidating," said U.S. District Judge Scott O. Wright of Kansas City, an advocate for reform.
The warnings prompt some judges to launch investigations into the requesters and their motives. At times they call in the U.S. Marshals Service for help.
Critics called the practice troubling and likened it to the FBI's old and widely condemned practice of investigating political opponents.
Most lawyers interviewed said they would never review the reports for fear of angering the judge who would decide their lawsuits. Other lawyers were discouraged by the time-consuming process involved in getting the reports, which are stored only in Washington.
"The judiciary has managed to hide its disclosures out of sight," said James C. Turner, executive director of the legal reform group HALT. "But they are public documents, and the people have a right to see them."
The top ranks of the judiciary are looking into making the reports more widely available. Yet court administrators argue that wider release of the asset lists could endanger judges, three of whom have been murdered in the last two decades.
"Members of Congress don't sentence dangerous drug kingpins to life in prison," federal courts spokesman David Sellers said in a written statement. "When (judges) put a person behind bars for life, they sometimes are left with a courtroom full of ruthless and angry friends and family."
Sellers could not cite an instance in which someone used the lists, which do not divulge judges' addresses, to harm a judge. Even so, Sellers said that the asset lists could be used maliciously and that the first instance of harm would be one too many.
The debate over disclosure erupted in April after The Kansas City Star published a series of articles that revealed dozens of financial conflicts among federal judges. The articles also showed how the court system's restrictions discouraged lawyers and litigants from reviewing the those asset lists.
The series sparked protest from Congress and became the focus of a House subcommittee hearing. Two senators suggested posting judges' assets on the Internet.
Despite the debate, court officials said they could not provide detailed statistics on how often the public reviewed the reports.
So The Star used public-records laws to obtain copies of every Form AO-10a filed in the last year. The forms, never before examined outside the judiciary, must be filled out by anyone reviewing the reports.
Critics said the story they revealed was disturbing.
Roughly 2,000 judges filed disclosure reports in 1997. Yet the judicial branch logged only about 100 requests for the reports. The requests were made on behalf of 78 individuals and companies, many of whom reviewed reports filed by several judges.
More than a third of the requests came from journalists, who often looked solely at the assets of Supreme Court justices. Thirty-three of the requesters were individuals, ranging from congressional researchers to prisoners checking on their trial judges. The remaining requests came from lawyers or legal assistants.
The judiciary's totals pale in comparison with those of other public officials.
Federal judges outnumber U.S. representatives by a 4-to-1 ratio. Yet House staffers last year released 1,600 copies of the reports filed by members of Congress. They also published the House reports in a book distributed nationwide.
Federal judges outnumber U.S. senators 20-to-1. Yet Senate staffers fielded roughly 450 requests.
Even those statistics understate the vast disparity in disclosure. Unlike the judiciary's reports, the public viewed those filed by Congress thousands of times last year on the Internet and through on-line services such as Lexis-Nexis.
Sellers, the courts spokesman, said judges' disclosure reports should be less accessible than those filed by legislators because of security concerns.
"It's apples and oranges," he said of comparing judges with senators. "Is the goal to have 1,600 requests for judges' forms, just because there are 1,600 requests for members of the House?"
Wright dismissed Seller's arguments. "Every time they don't want to do something, they raise security," Wright said.
Indeed, the disclosure reports do not divulge judges' home addresses. (Local telephone directories, on the other hand, list the addresses of at least three Kansas City judges.)
Critics say the court system's attitude is apparent at the judiciary's administrative office in Washington, where the reports are stored.
Unlike Congress and most federal agencies, the office lacks a public reading room or even a walk-up counter. In fact, workers there ask visitors to give two weeks' notice and to arrive only between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
"You would think they would try to make some accommodation to the public," said Doug Kendall, one of the few lawyers who have visited the office. "It is, after all, a financial disclosure office."
Sellers said workers there "do the best they can" with a small staff and tight budget.
In response to the newspaper's findings, judges in western Missouri voted in May to make lists of their assets available for anonymous review at the Kansas City courthouse. National court officials are considering the system for a national model.
But that might be a hard sell to some judges.
In fact, judges often grow agitated when warned that someone is reviewing their reports, said John Howell, a financial disclosure lawyer for the U.S. Judicial Conference.
Judges routinely telephone to ask, "Who is this person? Why have they requested (the reports)?" Howell said.
In one case, a housewife requested a judge's reports, prompting him to comb a list of all litigants in his courtroom.
"I am very concerned," the judge told Howell. "Why would she want to know what my holdings are?"
Howell agreed that the situation was a security risk and urged the judge to talk to a U.S. marshal. "We work very closely with the Marshals Service," Howell told the judge, "and they have other resources that can assist you."
Lubet, the law professor, was astounded at Howell's account.
"You shouldn't be investigating the background of someone who requests public information," Lubet said.
Turner agreed that the practice was troubling.
"This is the kind of stuff that was supposed to be buried with J. Edgar Hoover," Turner said, referring to the late FBI director. "Members of the federal judiciary do not appreciate how chilling and intimidating those kinds of actions can be to ordinary Americans -- who have done nothing wrong."
Financial disclosure reports for federal district judges from the Kansas City area are available on The Star's Web site at http://www.kcstar.com/judges. The site also features the full text of the investigative series, "On Their Honor."