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Service sues judges over nondisclosure

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From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

Web-based news service APBnews.com has filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York City against the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure, after the conference rejected a request for copies of the financial disclosure forms of more than 1,600 federal judges.

The lawsuit alleges that the disclosure reports are judicial records that should be made available to the public, including the news service.

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Requests for a federal judge’s financial disclosure statement are not handled under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which applies only to the executive branch of government. The Ethics in Government Act of 1978, however, calls for federal judges to report publicly all stock holdings, family assets, gifts and other reimbursements.

The reports need not contain personal information such as home addresses, telephone numbers, or names of spouses and dependents. The Ethics in Government Act contemplates use of the reports “by the news and communication media for dissemination to the general public.” In recent years, the reports have been used by investigative reporters to identify members of the federal judiciary who preside over litigation when they have a financial interest in one of the parties, most notably in a series of 1998 articles that appeared in The Kansas City Star.

The Ethics in Government Act prohibits disclosure of any report to anyone who has not made a written application stating the requester’s name, occupation, and address, the name of any other person or entity on whose behalf a request has been made, and a statement that the requester is aware of the regulations concerning use of the disclosure forms. In 1998, Congress passed a law that amended the act to authorize the Judicial Conference to redact information when the conference and the U.S. Marshals Office determine that release of the information would endanger a judge. The conference’s internal regulations also mandate that a judge be notified of every request to view his or her report.

On Sept. 7, APBnews.com — a web site that describes itself as “the source for news, information and data on crime, justice and safety” — submitted a “Request for Examination of Report Filed by a Judicial Officer or Judicial Employee.” It sought the reports of more than 1,600 federal judges.

On Nov. 1, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts told APBnews.com that release of some of the reports raised legitimate security concerns, but that the majority of the forms would be copied and released to the news service.

In December, Fort Lauderdale District Court Judge William J. Zloch, who chairs the financial disclosure committee, instituted a moratorium that indefinitely halted the public release of the financial disclosure forms. Zloch then called an emergency meeting of the committee for Dec. 10. A conference spokeswoman said Zloch’s moratorium was meant to be a temporary stay while Zloch and his colleagues considered the potential security ramifications of releasing the forms on the Internet.

Twenty-six federal judges comprise the conference, which is chaired by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Zloch’s financial disclosure committee has 15 federal judges on it.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists sent protest letters to the committee. On Dec. 10, the committee held a four-hour meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss APBnews.com’s pending disclosure request. On Dec. 14, the committee issued a statement that a requester who publishes reports on the Internet cannot comply with the Ethics in Government Act and announced that it had denied APBnews.com’s request.

APBnews.com responded by filing a lawsuit in federal court in New York City. The lawsuit alleges that the disclosure reports are judicial records that should be made available to the public under the First Amendment right of access to such records. (APBnews.com v. Committee on Financial Disclosure)