On their honor - Judges and their assets graphic
Bar association to vote on plan to reform financial disclosure rules

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On Their Honor: Judges and their assets

By JOE STEPHENS - The Kansas City Star
Date: 02/08/99 23:12

The American Bar Association is expected to vote on a plan to reform the federal judiciary's financial disclosure rules at the association's annual conference this summer in Atlanta.

The proposal, approved Friday by a major division of the association, calls for judges to file lists of their stock holdings at federal courthouses across the nation. Anyone could review the lists without providing identification.

Plan advocates say broader disclosure would encourage judges to avoid ethical lapses and would help the public sniff out conflicts of interest.

Kansas City lawyer Kent R. Erickson drafted the nine-page proposal after reading a series on judicial ethics last year in The Kansas City Star. The articles revealed that judges here and in other cities issued hundreds of orders in lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock, despite laws barring such conflicts.

Erickson's resolution was approved by a one-vote margin, 73 to 72, at a national meeting of the association's young lawyers division. The proposal now moves to the bar's full House of Delegates, where it is expected to face a final vote in August.

"I think it will be easier to pass the larger body," said U.S. District Judge Scott O. Wright of Kansas City, an advocate of reform. "I just can't believe the American Bar Association wouldn't get onto this thing. It gets down to the confidence that people have in their judicial system."

At Wright's urging, federal judges in Kansas City already have adopted the changes. Judges elsewhere, however, file lists of their assets only in Washington. Obtaining copies is a complicated, time-consuming process, and court officials warn judges about who is examining their holdings.

"Making the conflicts list available to the public at large, including the media, increases the potential of early identification of potential conflicts missed by the judges and their staffs," according to the bar resolution.

Connecticut lawyer David M. Moore argued against the proposal last week, saying it goes too far and fails to call for stricter enforcement of existing ethics laws.

"There's no doubt that something needs to be done," Moore acknowledged. "But why force judges to be more in a fish bowl than they ever have been before?"

He and other bar members said the House of Delegates generally approves resolutions endorsed by the young lawyers division, made up of more than 1,000 members under age 37.

The U.S. Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal court system, also is considering reform. The conference, overseen by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, plans to vote in March on a similar plan to make lists of judges' assets available at local courthouses.

Final details of that plan have not been made public.

To reach Joe Stephens, investigative reporter, call (816) 234-4427 or e-mail stephens@kcstar.com.