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When federal judges filed their financial disclosure reports in years past, a judicial committee, at a judge’s request, could black out much of the information. But that’s not the case with the 2005 reports that were due on May 15. The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 requires federal judges to file the financial disclosure reports annually as a check on conflicts of interest. Under that law, judges must detail sources and amounts of income, other than that earned as employees of the U.S. government; businesses owned; gifts and reimbursements for trips; and debt. But in 1998, Congress authorized judges to request that the Judicial Conference of the U.S. Committee on Financial Disclosure redact information contained in the reports that could put the judges’ security at risk. George Reynolds, staff counsel for the financial disclosure committee, says the authorization for the redactions expired Dec. 31, 2005, after the U.S. House and Senate failed to agree on the issue. There will be some exceptions, however. If the financial disclosure committee approved redactions on a judge’s 2005 report before the redaction authority expired at the end of last year, the committee staff can redact the information on the judge’s form, says Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. For all other federal judges, the only redactions allowed on their 2005 reports will be for “excess information,” such as their home addresses or their bank account or Social Security numbers, Carelli says. U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith of Kansas City, Mo., chairman of the financial disclosure committee, says the judiciary’s redaction authority expired after the House and Senate passed separate bills containing provisions that would have extended that authority. H.R. 1751, sponsored by U.S. House Judiciary Chairman James F. Sensebrenner, R-Wis., would have amended the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to permanently authorize the redaction of information on judges’ financial disclosure reports. S. 1558, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would have extended the redaction authority for another four years. Smith says Congress’ failure to extend the redaction authority has left the judiciary uneasy in the wake of the 2005 tragedy faced by U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow of Chicago, whose husband and mother were shot to death in the family’s home. Judges are concerned that people who might want to harm judges now have access to private information about the judges, (he says. “We simply shouldn’t make it easy for them,” Smith says. “I do think security is more of an issue these days than it was when I came on the bench 23 years ago,” says U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish, chief judge of the Northern District. “It was because of those [security] concerns that Congress granted that authority,” Fish says. One federal judge in Texas says he’s not just concerned that judges and their families face the risk of physical harm. “This failure to pass a law opens [judges] to further unnecessary invasion of their privacy,” says U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield of Beaumont, chief judge of the Eastern District. Judges’ investments are “wide open,” Heartfield says, adding that he fears disgruntled litigants who now have access to more information about a judge’s investments could find a way to “play with a judge’s portfolio.” Heartfield says that when he went on the bench 11 years ago, he placed his money in investments that are less lucrative and have less growth volume, such as mutual funds and municipal bonds. “But judges shouldn’t have to do that just because they’re judges,” Heartfield says. Steven Lubet, a law professor and judicial ethicist at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, says judges may have gone too far. “For security reasons, judges ought to redact some information on the disclosure reports, especially information about their families,” Lubet says. “In the past, however, some judges have gone to seemingly unreasonable extremes, redacting virtually all of the required disclosures. It is difficult to understand, for example, why a judge would need to exclude information about financial holdings or investments � except in highly unusual circumstances.”
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But U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of Brownsville says the fact that some judges have redacted information about how much of a particular stock they own doesn’t prevent checks for conflicts of interest. Under 28 U.S.C. �455(d)(4), if a judge owns one share of stock in a company, the judge can’t sit on a case that involves the company. “The rule is one share and you’re out,” Hanen says. However, a government report released two years ago raised questions about how the judiciary used its redaction authority. In June 2004, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that during calendar years 1999 through 2002, less than 10 percent of the more than 2,000 federal judges who filed financial disclosure reports during those years requested any type of redaction. But the financial disclosure committee granted, in whole or in part, 592 of the 661 redaction requests it received during the four-year period, according to the report. Clear and Present Danger Smith says the financial disclosure committee decided in 2005 to take a different approach with regard to redaction requests. The committee agreed to redact only the information that presented a “clear and present danger” to the judge, he says. “The clear consensus of the committee was that we need to use financial report redactions sparingly,” Smith says. But unless Congress passes legislation that reauthorizes the redaction authority, the committee won’t grant any redaction requests in the future. Since the judiciary no longer can redact information in the disclosure reports, judges will pay closer attention to the details of what they’re required to disclose and won’t provide any additional information on their reports, says U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas of Houston, a member of the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Security. The financial disclosure report Atlas filed for 2004 contains extensive redactions. Much of the information blacked out on her report is about the amount of her investments. Atlas says the concern, in this age of computers, is that the more information people have about a judge, the easier it is to find the judge or to commit identity theft. Notes Atlas, “Judges are worried about identity theft or disgruntled litigants tracking information back to the judge’s home or family.”

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