On Their Honor: Judges and their assets
By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 06/11/98 22:15
WASHINGTON -- Federal judges testifying before a House subcommittee on Thursday promised to investigate widespread ethical violations in the judiciary and to consider broader disclosure of judges' assets.
In particular, they pledged to study whether reforms enacted in Kansas City last month should be extended to federal courthouses across the nation.
"We recognize there could be a problem in this area," testified W. Terrell Hodges, chairman of the executive committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference.
Hodges fielded complaints from members of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on courts, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren. The California Democrat criticized judges for financial conflicts and for accepting free trips to seminars in resort locations.
"There is nothing more damaging to citizens' faith in the country and in the due process of law than the belief, even if inaccurate, that those who are trusted to judge have been influenced by financial connections," Lofgren said.
The hearing follows a series on judicial ethics published in April by The Kansas City Star. The articles revealed that federal judges in Kansas City and elsewhere presided over dozens of lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock, despite laws forbidding such conflicts.
The series also showed that few people see judges' financial disclosure statements because the judiciary imposes tight restrictions on their release. And it showed that when judges break ethics laws, they rarely face so much as a private reprimand.
Sens. John Ashcroft of Missouri and Charles Grassley of Iowa last week wrote to the court system's top administrator, arguing that sweeping reform was needed to combat an alarming number of ethical lapses.
On Thursday, the debate moved to the other side of Capitol Hill. A routine oversight hearing in the House gave congressmen an opportunity to pose questions about the violations to Hodges, one of the nation's highest-ranking judges.
Hodges stressed that the judicial conference, which sets policy for federal courts nationwide, had already written to judges across the nation to highlight the violations uncovered by The Star. The letters reminded judges that they must withdraw from any case in which they have a financial interest, however small.
Hodges said the newspaper series also raised "provocative issues" by suggesting that judges' financial disclosure statements should be more easily available. Currently, the statements are available only in Washington, and anyone reviewing them must sign a notarized statement and pay a fee. In addition, judges are notified if someone requests their disclosure statement.
Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican, pointed out that it is far easier to obtain disclosure statements filed by members of Congress than by federal judges. Hodges agreed.
"That's not as easy an issue (to fix) as it might seem, because of security concerns," Hodges said.
He testified that inmates had misused the financial information filed by judges, but he did not say how or offer any examples. Reached later, court spokesmen could not document any instances in which disclosure forms had been used to harm a judge.
Kansas City judges last month voted to make lists of their stock investments available for public review at the local clerk of courts office. Unlike the system in place elsewhere in the country, anyone may review the lists without providing identification, and no one warns a judge about who is scrutinizing his or her finances.
"That might be a very useful idea," Hodges said of the Kansas City system, "and our committees will be considering that."
Coble asked the judges to keep Congress informed.
Judge Rya W. Zobel, director of the Federal Judicial Center, testified that the center is using the newspaper's series to train new judges about their ethical responsibilities. At a recent conference, Zobel said, each of the nation's chief judges gathered to discuss the series' findings and explore solutions.
The congressionally funded center is responsible for the continuing education of federal judges.
William H. Rehnquist, U.S. chief justice and head of the Judicial Conference, did not attend Thursday's hearing. In a letter to The Star this week, he declined to comment on the ethical lapses by judges.
Rehnquist wrote, however, that "it is my understanding that the Codes of Conduct committee and the Financial Disclosure Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States are reviewing the matters raised in The Star's articles."
Also on Thursday, the consumer organization HALT wrote to the subcommittee, calling for more congressional hearings into the "very serious" violations.
"It is difficult to imagine a more fundamental breach of judicial integrity and the rights of litigants than the failure to ensure that impartial, disinterested judges preside in matters before the federal courts," said the letter, signed by James C. Turner, executive director of HALT, which lobbies for legal reform.
"On behalf of HALT's 50,000 members, I am requesting an immediate congressional investigation."
Turner wrote that judges make it unusually difficult to obtain their disclosure reports.
"These burdensome and unnecessary requirements seem to be designed to discourage access to financial information about federal judges," Turner wrote, "and are in marked contrast to the open access that ethics laws require for members of Congress and senior officials in the executive branch.
The letter said the Washington-based organization was "deeply concerned" by the pattern of violations and by the judiciary's failure to unearth them itself.
"We hope you will share our concern," Turner wrote to the committee, "and will act promptly to correct this very serious situation."