On Their Honor: Judges and their assets
By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 09/15/98 22:15
WASHINGTON -- The nation's top judges on Tuesday approved reforms aimed at reducing conflicts of interest and increasing access to judges' financial disclosure reports.
The U.S. Judicial Conference voted to slash charges for copies of the reports by 60 percent and to lower other administrative obstacles to the public. It also unveiled a series of ethics training programs for judges.
And the policy-making conference, headed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, directed two committees to study allowing the public to review judges' financial holdings at their local courthouses. Currently, that option is available only in Kansas City.
The judges called those and other reforms "positive steps in improving public access to financial disclosure reports without compromising the security of judges."
Judicial critics were heartened but stressed the changes should not stop here.
"The Judicial Conference took long-overdue first steps," said James C. Turner, a Washington lawyer and legal-system reformer. "But these are only first steps. Full, local disclosure at the courthouse is the obvious solution."
The conference's 27 members enacted the changes during a secret, daylong meeting at the U.S. Supreme Court. They acted in response to a series published this spring in The Kansas City Star.
The newspaper reported that federal judges in Kansas City and elsewhere presided over scores of lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock, despite laws forbidding such conflicts.
The newspaper's study of cases in four states identified more than 300 court orders entered in violation of federal law. The judges set hearings, granted motions, conducted trials and threw out legal claims. At the same time, the judges owned as much as $250,000 in stock in the companies being sued.
The articles showed that few people look at judges' disclosure reports because the judiciary places tight restrictions on their release. The reports are stored only in Washington, the judiciary releases them only after a lengthy administrative process and each request sparks a warning to the judge about who is investigating the holdings.
The Star also found that more than a third of the reports were incomplete or contained errors.
In response, the Judicial Conference and its committees on Tuesday announced a range of reforms. The judges:
The most far-reaching reform still under consideration -- posting all of a judge's assets at the local courthouse for anyone to see -- was not immediately approved. Hodges said two committees will study the issue and the conference could act on the plan at its next meeting in March.
The final proposal might include more than financial holdings, he said. For example, a judge might list law firms at which relatives and close friends work.
Hodges said he hopes the conference's actions satisfy congressional critics that the judiciary is serious about reform.
In June, Sen. John Ashcroft and Sen. Charles Grassley accused the judiciary of a "disturbing pattern" of ethical violations and of blocking public access to the disclosure reports.
"When federal judges fail to obey the laws that govern their conduct, they send a terrible message to the public," the senators said in a letter to judicial administrators.
That same month, a House subcommittee chastised judges for their ethical lapses and said it would consider legislation if the judicial conference did not act.
Federal lawmakers contacted on Tuesday said they wanted to study the conference's actions before commenting.
The conference also was swayed by Kansas City judges, who took the lead in reform.
In April, District Judge Scott O. Wright filed a list of his investments with the clerk at the Kansas City courthouse. Soon, all other judges in Western Missouri followed his example.
"Anybody who wants to come in and see it, they are free to do so," Wright said at the time. "It is clearly the right thing to do."
Missouri state judges quickly decided to do the same. Now judicial officials in Kansas are hammering out details for that state's first system of judicial disclosure.
Wright also campaigned for reform nationwide. He mailed letters to more than 30 ranking federal judges, urging that they vote to enact disclosure rules at all federal courthouses.
"It is my belief that if the judiciary does not face this issue, Congress will step in with some sort of legislation," Wright warned in the letters. "I would much prefer that the judiciary take care of the problem on its own."
The Judicial Conference, which meets twice a year, includes chief judges of the 13 federal circuits, a district judge from 12 geographic regions and chief judge of the Court of International Trade. It is the top rule-making body for the federal courts.