On their honor - Judges and their assets graphic
Nation's top judges agree to ethics reforms

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On Their Honor: Judges and their assets

By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 09/16/98 23:30

WASHINGTON -- Critics consider the federal judiciary to be a vast immovable object. But this week that object moved -- and moved fast.

That's how experts described Tuesday's announcement that the nation's top judges had approved a range of ethics reforms. Each change is aimed at reducing conflicts of interest and improving public disclosure of judges' financial investments.

The policy-making U.S. Judicial Conference defied its image by approving the reforms at its semiannual meeting, the first since The Kansas City Star began reporting on ethical violations earlier this year.

"It was great," said Steven Lubet, a leading judicial ethicist and a professor at Northwestern University.

"The judiciary is the most ponderous branch of government. They are not accustomed to concerted action."

But Lubet and others, including some in Congress, said Wednesday that the judges still have far to go before reaching full public accountability.

"It looks like the Judicial Conference has taken some positive first steps toward reform," said Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees courts.

"I want to review these new policies and procedures in practice to see how effective they are in opening up the financial disclosure process to the public as well as assisting judges in complying with the law."

Some legal experts favor placing all judges' investments on the Internet for everyone to see.

As yet, that's not on the judges' agenda. But the conference, headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is debating whether to allow the public to review judges' financial holdings at their local courthouses. Currently, that option is available only in Kansas City.

Reforms the conference approved this week include slashing charges for copies of judges' financial disclosure reports and lowering other administrative obstacles to the public. It waived a requirement that all requests to see the reports be signed by a notary public, and it unveiled a series of ethics training programs for judges.

The conference may have had little choice, said Kansas City lawyer Dennis Egan. Reports of widespread ethical violations by judges damaged their public image and sparked congressional criticism.

"What they have done is laudable," Egan said, "but I thought maybe they would do a little more."

District Judge Scott O. Wright of Kansas City said he is convinced more reform is on the way. He has been lobbying for national change, and he helped convince Kansas City judges to post lists of their stock holdings at the local courthouse.

"What we did here makes so much sense," Wright said. "I can't believe they won't do something (similar)."

If the conference does not, Wright predicted Congress will draft its own reforms -- something the judiciary would like to avoid.

Lawyer Doug Kendall of Washington was more critical than most, saying the restrictions lifted on Tuesday were outrageous and possibly violated disclosure laws. "The conference took no more action than was absolutely necessary," he said.

He complained that the judges sidestepped other issues, such as whether judges should take free trips from special-interest groups.

The conference's actions were sparked by articles in The Star. The newspaper reported in April 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 articles also 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.

Nancy Powell, whose lawsuit against Sprint was handled by a judge who owned Sprint stock, said she felt vindication upon hearing of the conference's actions.

"It's a start," she said. "The reforms announced yesterday put every federal court judge in the country on notice that their conduct is not above the law."