Each spring, federal judges file public reports on their finances, including income they earned on the side, gifts, reimbursed trips and investments.
Adopted in 1978 as part of post-Watergate scandal reforms, the reporting requirements were meant to expose potential conflicts of interest.
The reports aren’t instantly and easily accessible. Members of the public must mail or fax requests to the judiciary to see them. There’s no online application process. Judges are notified of each request and can ask for redactions for security reasons. It can be weeks or months before the reports are made available.
Lawyers and the public have an interest in judges’ ties to individuals, companies or lawyers appearing before them, said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law. Judges have to step down from a case if they own stock in one of the parties; other financial connections can also lead to recusals.
Under the federal Ethics in Government Act, judges and other federal officials disclose a broad range of financial information, including the names and values of all investments.
“It is unbelievably time-consuming,” said Judge Ilana Rovner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Judges and other judiciary officials can be reimbursed up to $1,000 for accountants, stock brokers or lawyers they hire to help prepare their reports.
Besides watchdog groups and news organizations, lawyers occasionally ask for copies. But attorneys don’t regularly use the reports to check for conflicts, Gillers said. Beginning in 2006, the judiciary required all federal courts to use automated conflict-screening systems. Judges are expected to check “at regular intervals” that their information in those systems is up to date, according to the judiciary’s policy.
Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, questioned the practical utility of the annual reports in preventing conflicts. The disclosures, he said, are “outdated as soon as they’re filed.”
“If you’re a knowledgeable lawyer, you know the judges are supposed to be using the conflict identifications software,” Hellman said. “You hope that’s going to be effective.”The federal judiciary fielded between 54 and 82 requests annually between 2009 and 2012 to view financial reports filed by federal judges and other court officials who are required to file. In 2012, it released 3,702 reports to the public.
Rovner said the reports serve a purpose. “I think the public has a right to know us as much as they can know us,” she said.