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Rehnquist calls on Congress to limit judges' financial disclosures

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Secret Courts         May 16, 2000    

Rehnquist calls on Congress to limit judges’ financial disclosures

  • The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court said he hopes Congress will recognize that the disclosure required of federal officials could harm judges.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist told an American Law Institute meeting on May 15 that he hopes that Congress will pass legislation allowing federal judges to avoid releasing their full financial disclosure forms to the public for potential posting on the Internet.

Rehnquist’s speech concerned the 16-8 March 14 vote of the U.S. Judicial Conference to release financial disclosure forms for all members of the federal judiciary to APBnews.com, a web-based news service that had previously announced that it would be posting the disclosure forms online. The action reversed a decision made by the Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure.

The decision to release the data came in response to a federal lawsuit filed by APBnews.com in New York City against the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure.

“With regard to the issue of posting all judges’ financial disclosure statements on the Internet, I believe the Judicial Conference has acted responsibly and demonstrated a good faith effort to comply with a law that frankly poses some risks to judges,” Rehnquist said in his speech to the ALI. “The Conference now hopes that Congress will also act responsibly and balance the legitimate needs for public disclosure of judges’ financial holdings with the judges’ needs for security.”

Rehnquist said that the Judicial Conference’s Executive and Financial Disclosure Committees has prepared regulations designed to conform to the Ethics in Government Act and ease the redaction of “sensitive information in the reports to avoid an en masse production that — in the words of the statute — ‘could endanger’ the judges.”

He added that the conference may also request that Congress consider amendments in the filing requirements to reduce security risks for federal judges. “I don’t think the Judicial Conference has any desire to obtain a complete exemption for judges, but simply wishes to assure its membership that their legitimate concerns are adequately addressed in the [Ethics in Government] Act,” Rehnquist said.

The Ethics in Government Act requires that federal judges must file annual financial reports with the Judicial Conference’s Financial Disclosure Committee. The act sets forth the general content requirements of the reports and provides for public access to the reports.

Rehnquist said that he believes that there are “legitimate purposes served by the Act,” including exposing “the judges’ financial holdings to public scrutiny which assists judges in avoiding conflicts of interest.” But he noted that “for all of the public benefits of the Ethics in Government Act,” it also presents judges with troubling security issues. It may “expose where a judge’s spouse works, the spouse’s income, where a family member is attending school if the school has made a loan to the student, or even where a judge may reside if, for example, the judge is on a condominium board.”

The availability of the financial information on the Internet “surely illustrates one of the changes wrought by the so-called ‘technological revolution’ and illustrates the difference between requiring some effort to acquire public information and requiring virtually no effort to acquire it,” according to Rehnquist.

The Chief Justice noted that three federal judges — Robert Vance of Alabama, Richard Daronco of New York and John Wood of Texas — have been murdered in recent decades. “Trial judges in general are exposed to the criminal element in our society in ways that most federal employees who must file financial disclosure reports, such as Senators, Congressmen and appellate judges . . . are not,” Rehnquist said.

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