See Mike Sacks, Justices Urged to Provide More Access to Financial Disclosures, The Blog of Legal Times, (June 3, 2015). I reprint the article in full because it is very important:
A group of transparency advocates and government watchdogs on Wednesday called for the U.S. Supreme Court to provide greater access to the justices’ financial disclosure forms, the latest of which are set to be released June 30.
The House Transparency Caucus hosted a briefing on financial transparency at the high court. Reps. Darrell Issa, R-California, and Mike Quigley, R-Illinois, led the event.
“Lifetime appointments, the lack of any accountability or recourse for self-dealing makes it essential that we truly understand what conflicts may exist in [the justices’] financial or, in fact, their personal lives,” Issa said. “They have the ultimate responsibility for determining the rules that they live by and that the lower courts will live by unless Congress intervenes.”
Quigley emphasized the responsibility that comes with the court’s wide impact on American governance. “Five people in robes can overturn a law that 435 members of the house, 100 senators and the president of the United States agree on. That’s extraordinary power,” he said.
“With the greatest respect to the justices, they seem to forget one simple thing. This is not their Supreme Court. They are not the supreme court. They happen to be, like I am, a temporary member. I am a temporary member of Congress, I am a custodian. And with that comes a responsibility that they must share to be as accountable as they possibly can to the American public,” Quigley said. Americans “have a right to know what [the justices’] situation is financially, who they’re obligated to, to at least the same level that the other branches of government address.”
The panelists laid out the nuts and bolts of what Supreme Court financial reporting looks like, and how they think it should be improved.
“Judicial filings are still living in the 20th century,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics’ executive director. “You have to fill out a form and fax it to the administrative office, at which point they will either mail the results to you or you can set up an appointment to come by and physically pick them up. And, again, bring a check, because you have to pay 20 cents a page.”
Katie Townsend, the litigation director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, “the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 does apply to the Supreme Court the same way that it applies to other branches of government.” She suggested that the judiciary can improve its compliance policies with online disclosure, reporting uniformity, and releasing the information before the court adjourns for the summer so journalists can provide fuller context for the big decisions that come down in June.
A Center for Public Integrity report last year on appeals court financial disclosure forms revealed “26 cases in which judges were ruling on cases in which they or their spouses owned stock, which is not allowed under the rules of the federal judiciary,” Kytja Weir, a project manager and reporter for the center, said on Wednesday. The investigation led to five of those cases being reopened and reheard with new judges. The NLJ reported on appellate judges’ travel and their connections to law firms and law schools in a special report last year.
The Supreme Court has made no moves to change its status quo and are “pretty jealous about protecting their prerogatives, and their independence, and their security,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Bookbinder said there’s “some hope that these changes can be made by pressure rather than by legislation.”
I could not agree more that financial disclosure reports of the Justices, indeed all federal judges, should be made easily available such as by posting them on each court’s external web site. Indeed, I have long posted unredacted copies of my disclosure reports (and my recusal list) on our external web site. See here. Although dated, the instructions for filling out the reports as of 2010 can be found here. The instructions for 2014 are not greatly different, although they do not seem to be publicly available. (Why does that not surprise me!)
It is complete pain in the ass for the public to get copies of these reports under the present circumstances. While the reports can be obtained through nongovernmental entities like Judicial Watch, those entities tend to be very slow about uploading the most recent reports.
There is no good reason for putting roadblocks in the paths of those who want to see our reports, and that includes the Justices most especially. If there are security concerns, the Justices can see to redactions much like what now happens when a disclosure report is requested and some security issue may be lurking. By the way, when you hear the words “judicial security” by those who oppose easier access to these reports, don’t take those words seriously.
While the disclosure reports paint a good overall picture, and are useful to a judge when thinking about recusal requirements, the present reporting requirements are not overly invasive. For example, I need not report credit card debit unless it reaches $10,000 or more. I need not report mortgage debt on my residence. Nor do I need to report my Thrift Savings account with the government. I don’t even have to report our three used cars, two of which are near and dear to my heart. Indeed, they are such fine machines that I blogged about them. See here and here.
So when you hear judges bitch about these reports, take those complaints with a grain of salt. That is particularly true since judges are allowed to hire accountants and other professionals to help them prepare the reports, and the government reimburses the judges for those expenses up to $1,000.
I now provide me last report below for context. (As noted, you can find some of my earlier reports on our external web site.) In fairness, I was the poorest district judge nominated by Bush 41 and that probably remains true today. So my report, unlike the average judge’s report, is quite simple. Nonetheless, this will give you some sense of what the report looks like and the scope of it.
In short, the House is right to push this issue. Indeed, I hope it pushes damn hard.