On their honor - Judges and their assets graphic
Nation's top judges approve conflict of interest reforms

By JOE STEPHENS - The Kansas City Star
Date: 03/16/99 22:15

WASHINGTON -- The nation's top judges on Tuesday approved a range of reforms aimed at reducing conflicts of interest, but they rejected a plan favored by many in Congress: posting a list of each judge's stock holdings at the local courthouse for anyone to see.

Instead, the U.S. Judicial Conference ended months of debate by reaffirming its current disclosure system, which makes judges' investments far more difficult to review than those of Congress and the president.

"It is clear that disclosures of this nature intrude on judges' financial privacy," a conference committee concluded.

That could mean trouble at the Capitol, where lawmakers have warned they would consider legislation if the judiciary did not loosen its grip on the disclosure reports. Last year some legislators proposed posting the reports on the Internet.

The American Bar Association also may wade into the dispute. A major division of the bar last month approved a resolution calling for local disclosure of judges' stocks, and representatives of the full bar are expected to vote on the matter in July.

"The Judicial Conference missed an important opportunity to make public disclosure forms truly public," said Doug Kendall, a Washington lawyer who favors reform. "This gives the impression that judges have something to hide."

A conference committee stressed on Tuesday that judges may choose individually to make their investments public. The committee also outlined a series of programs, ranging from ethics workshops to conflict-detecting computer systems, that it hopes will ensure judges obey ethics laws.

The reforms stem from "On Their Honor," a series published last year by The Kansas City Star. The articles revealed that federal judges in Kansas City and elsewhere repeatedly presided over lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock, despite laws forbidding such conflicts. The newspaper's study of judges in four states uncovered more than 300 court orders entered in violation of federal law.

Although judges file lists of their investments in Washington, the articles showed the judiciary shields those reports from the public with an array of bureaucratic hurdles. Court officials release the reports only after a lengthy administrative process and only after warning the judge about who is investigating his or her holdings. As a result, few people look at the reports or use them to identify conflicts of interest.

The series sparked a barrage of criticism from Congress and consumer advocates, and it led the conference to enact some reforms at its last semi-annual meeting. At the September meeting, the judges also referred the disclosure issue to five committees for study.

The conference, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, reviewed the committee reports behind closed doors Tuesday. Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided over the meeting at the Supreme Court.

The reports raised many objections to providing what they described as "ready access" to the disclosure lists, which are public under federal law. Some judges decried a loss of privacy. Others worried the lists would allow lawyers, by naming particular corporations as defendants, to influence which judge heard their lawsuits.

"The committee," one report said, "concluded that no ethical principles required judges to make available lists of financial interests."

The report concluded that posting the lists could tacitly shift responsibility for uncovering conflicts from the judges to the public. It added that judges' enemies also could use the information to file fake liens against their land holdings.

Making the lists accessible outside Washington could "create substantial security risks," the report warned, without explaining how.

Critics have ridiculed that claim, pointing out the lists do not include addresses or phone numbers for the judges. They argue many jurists want the power of high public office but not the accompanying scrutiny.

Even so, the chairman of the conference's executive committee said the judiciary takes the issue seriously.

"The recommendation was not that we turn a deaf ear to this problem and go on to something else," said the chairman, Judge W. Terrell Hodges. "It was that we redouble our effort to educate judges."

Among reform efforts outlined in conference reports:

  • Court officials have shipped "informational letters" to all federal judges, reminding them of their duty under ethics laws. More educational materials will be distributed to all 2,000 federal judges this spring.

  • Ethics training will be incorporated into a variety of workshops and seminars for federal judges. That process began last year, when the Federal Judicial Center included segments on ethics in education programs it presented to judges around the nation.

  • Two computer systems are under development to automatically flag conflicts.

    One will be adapted from software already in use in Maine that identifies conflicts by comparing judges' investments with computerized docket reports. Court officials will incorporate the other system into the expansive Electronic Case Files project, which they hope will one day eliminate paper court records.

  • The conference is recommending that all judges perform an additional "recusal check" before entering their first court order in any lawsuit.

  • The conference will distribute two checklists judges can use to ensure they do not overlook conflicts of interest. One will focus on financial holdings, the other on non-financial conflicts.

  • One committee will continue to study changing federal rules to require litigants to identify all corporate affiliations.

    Judges in the Western District of Missouri last month approved a similar rule. It requires corporations named in a lawsuit to supply a list of all their subsidiaries, any parent companies and any affiliates. Clerks can compare those companies to a judge's holdings.

    Despite Tuesday's vote, federal judges in western Missouri will continue to file lists of their investments at the courthouse in Kansas City. They enacted that reform last year, shortly after The Star published its findings.

    The conference released its decision late Tuesday, limiting immediate reaction. Congressional staffers said they would review the announcement and speculated that lawmakers might choose to reopen the issue.

    Last year, members of both the House and Senate called for changes in the way judges disclose their investments. One advocate of reform was Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on the courts.

    "I don't think judges' financial holdings ought to be insulated from public knowledge," Coble said at the time. "I want to get some sunlight into what appears to be a dark room."

    The judicial conference is the principal policy-making body for the federal courts. The chief justice serves as presiding officer of the group, which meets twice a year at the Supreme Court.

    Other members include the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeal, a district judge from 12 geographic circuits and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade.

    The Star's Kevin Murphy contributed to this report.

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