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Federal courts streamline path for judicial financial reports

The changes don’t go as far as provisions in legislation that both chambers have passed in the past few months

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is one of the backers of legislation to increase transparency for judicial financial disclosure reports.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is one of the backers of legislation to increase transparency for judicial financial disclosure reports. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The policymaking body for the federal courts announced Tuesday the development of a new electronic system for more access to the financial disclosure reports of federal judges, as Congress has passed bills with broad bipartisan support on the issue in the past few months.

The Senate passed an amended bill last month to require online publication of judicial financial disclosure reports, along with a searchable database of those reports, and require federal judges to submit periodic reports for certain securities transactions. The House passed a slightly different version of that same bill in December.

What the U.S. Judicial Conference authorized Tuesday would not go that far. The courts authorized a process to streamline access to those reports, but it still requires someone to fill out a form and request them. Officials also said the system would continue to be developed.

Previously, a request for financial disclosure reports would go to judges, who had time to redact information for the security of themselves or their families, U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan, the chair of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference, told reporters in a virtual press briefing.

Under the new system through the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, judges will have to request any redactions and then submit the annual reports, Eagan said.

“So in the future, when there is a request for these reports, the A.O. will have the ability to post those financial disclosure reports immediately without requesting redactions by the judge,” Eagan said. “They will already be redacted.”

The change would apply to federal circuit and district judges, magistrates, bankruptcy judges and others under the federal judicial code of conduct, Eagan said. That does not include Supreme Court justices.

Gabe Roth, the executive director of the nonpartisan group Fix the Court, which advocates for accountability and transparency, said the congressional proposals would hasten transparency.

“In theory, this is positive news: The judiciary acknowledges several deficiencies in accountability and indicates it’ll take steps to improve,” Roth said. “However, online disclosures, stronger conflict checks and more livestreaming in lower courts could happen tomorrow, and today’s announcement calls for what could become a yearslong process with no guarantee of an appropriately transparent final outcome.”

Lawmakers pursued the issue last year after a Wall Street Journal investigative report that looked at those annual financial disclosures and how access to them can be time-consuming and cumbersome, which makes it difficult to know when judges must recuse themselves from a case because of a financial interest.

The newspaper found that between 2010 and 2018, more than 130 federal judges decided cases in which they were part-owners in the parties before them, and more than 60 judges actively traded shares in the parties in their courtrooms while the cases were still going on, sometimes making a profit on those trades, lawmakers said.

“The consequences of these actions are both acute and widespread: Failures to recuse can cause real harm to the parties whose cases are impacted and can leave a cloud of doubt over any law created from these cases once the conflicts are uncovered,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said ahead of the House’s 422-4 vote in December.

The Judicial Conference also announced Tuesday an amended mandatory policy for judges to screen for financial conflicts. That includes a requirement that judges at least twice a year certify that they have prepared or updated a list of financial conflicts that would require them to recuse from a case.

The conference announced the policies after a closed-door biannual meeting in Washington. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland attended the meeting, as did Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, as well as Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Steve Womack of Arkansas and Darrell Issa of California and Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson.

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