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Judges vote to deny Internet media access to financial disclosure forms

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Secret Courts         Dec 15, 1999    

Judges vote to deny Internet media access to financial disclosure forms

  • The moratorium on release of federal judges’ financial disclosure forms has ended, but the U.S. Judicial Conference still refuses to provide an online news service with copies of the forms for posting on the Internet.

The U.S. Judicial Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure announced Dec. 14 that it was lifting a two-week-old moratorium that had indefinitely halted the public release of financial disclosure forms of more than 1,600 federal judges but rejected the request of web-based news service APBnews.com to get copies of the forms for posting on the Internet.

APBnews.com announced in response that it would file a lawsuit for release of the information. It also quoted the chairperson of the House of Representatives’ subcommittee that oversees the federal courts as saying that he wants to hold a hearing to consider the legality of the committee’s decision.

The committee stated that releasing the records to APBnews.com for posting on the news agency’s web site would allow any visitors to APBnews.com to view a judge’s disclosure form without that judge knowing who was gaining access to his or her records. One provision of the Ethics in Government Act states that any request to view a judge’s disclosure form must be made in writing to the administrative office in Washington, and U.S. Judicial Conference’s regulations require that the judge whose form has been requested must be informed of the request and the name and occupation of the person making the request before the information is released. Therefore, according to the committee, granting APBnews.com’s request would lead to the violation of the law, because those viewing the forms on the Internet would not be following the established procedure.

A 1998 amendment to the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 allows a federal judge to temporarily withhold and redact financial disclosure statements — which list stock holdings and other financial interests — from public disclosure “only to the extent necessary to protect” the judge.

Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property, was quoted by APBnews.com as stating that the committee’s decision fosters the distrust that some Americans have for public officials. “I just feel that any public official paid by taxes is obliged to divulge that information,” Coble told APBnews.com. “Judges may not have anything to conceal, but the perception is such.”

The committee’s announcement followed an emergency four-hour Dec. 10 meeting in Washington that had been called by U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, who serves as the committee’s chairperson. Zloch had called the meeting after imposing the moratorium on release of the financial disclosure forms from his office in Fort Lauderdale at the beginning of December.

A federal courts spokesperson told the AP last week that Zloch’s moratorium had been prompted by concerns that release of the financial disclosure forms on the Internet would lead to “universal and anonymous access.” The Washington Post quoted the spokesperson as saying that 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.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist chairs the U.S. Judicial Conference, which makes policy for all federal courts. Fifteen judges sit on the Committee on Financial Disclosure.

Requests for a federal judge’s financial disclosure statement are not handled under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which only applies to the executive branch of government. Instead, a request must be made in writing to the administrative office in Washington, and the judge whose form has been requested must be informed of the request, and the name and occupation of the person making the request, before the information is released.

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