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News service sues for access to financial disclosure forms

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Secret Courts         Jan 19, 2000    

News service sues for access to financial disclosure forms

  • APBnews.com asserts that the financial disclosure forms of federal judges are public judicial records and has asked a federal court to order release of the forms.

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

The lawsuit alleges that the disclosure reports are judicial records that should be made available to all of the public, including the news service. It also alleges that the rejection of the request for copies of the reports abridges the First Amendment’s right of access protections and the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection and due process provisions.

The lawsuit names the committee, its 15 individual members, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, and the U.S. Marshals Service as defendants. It requests that the court require the committee to release all of the forms to APBnews.com without assessing any copying fees, declare that the committee violated the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes, and award APBnews.com attorney fees and costs.

The lawsuit comes in response to the committee’s Dec. 14 decision to permanently reject APBnews.com’s request for copies of all of the forms for posting on its web site. The committee stated that releasing the records to APBnews.com would improperly allow any visitors to www.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 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 people 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.

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. 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 Dec. 14 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 court spokesperson had told the Associated Press 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.

(APBnews.com v. Committee on Financial Disclosure; Media Counsel: Mark S. Zaid, Washington, D.C.)

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