On Their Honor: Judges and their assets
By JOE STEPHENS - The Kansas City Star
Date: 03/17/99 22:15
Congressional leaders vowed Wednesday to continue pushing for broader disclosure of the assets of federal judges despite opposition by the judiciary.
Legislators were surprised and dismayed that the U.S. Judicial Conference this week rejected a plan calling for judges to post lists of their stock holdings at their local courthouses, for anyone to see. Reformers had promoted the plan as a way to reduce illegal conflicts of interest.
"Judges should join lawmakers and other high-level government officials in disclosing their financial holdings," said Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of a subcommittee that oversees federal courts.
"It is important to let the sun shine in on our system of government. I'd like to see the judicial conference revisit this issue as part of their commitment to accountability in the judicial system."
Other lawmakers said they were considering a second round of hearings on the issue, but added it is too soon to set a course of action.
The conference is the principal policy-making body for the federal courts. Although it approved some ethics reforms Tuesday, the conference voted against broader financial disclosure, saying judges considered it an invasion of privacy.
"It was felt this was just another imposition on judges," said Judge W. Terrell Hodges, chairman of the conference's executive committee.
The plan arose in response to a series published last year in The Kansas City Star.
The series, "On Their Honor," showed that federal judges in Kansas City and elsewhere presided over scores of lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock. The newspaper's investigation identified more than 300 court orders entered by judges who had a financial interest in the outcome.
In the Kansas City area alone, two-thirds of the federal judges had presided over at least one lawsuit involving a company in which they owned stock.
Although judges list their investments on annual disclosure reports, the series showed how the judiciary placed 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.
Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican and a ranking member of the judiciary committee, was a vocal supporter of the reform plan.
"I was terribly disappointed," Ashcroft said Wednesday of the conference's actions. "The current policy governing disclosure of judges' financial information makes it difficult and intimidating for the public to help monitor judges' compliance with ethics rules.
"Only when the public has full access to this information can we be confident that judges will be held to the highest and best standard possible."
Judges in western Missouri agree. After The Star's series, they decided to file lists of their investments at the courthouse in Kansas City. They will continue to do so despite the conference's vote Tuesday.
Across Capitol Hill, Rep. Howard Coble said he was weighing whether his committee should reexamine the issue. The North Carolina Republican heads a subcommittee on court oversight that questioned Hodges about the conflicts at a hearing last year.
"I think that was a mistake," Coble said of the conference's decision. "This seemed to me a perfect opportunity for them to have come forward and said, `It's been wrong in the past, and the perception is we have something to hide. We are going to open the door.'
"The public is innately suspicious when you attempt to conceal information this is, in fact, their business."
Consumer advocates called on Congress to hold new hearings and consider remedial legislation. James C. Turner, a Washington lawyer and legal reformer, argued it is important to demonstrate that judges are accountable to the public.
"These are supposed to be publicly available records," Turner said of the disclosure reports. "To ignore the clear intent of the law, especially when you are a judge, raises questions about their ability to interpret the law in other areas."
The judicial conference meets twice a year at the Supreme Court. The chief justice serves as presiding officer of the 27-member group.
The Star's Kevin Murphy contributed to this report.
To reach Joe Stephens, investigative reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4427 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org