Supreme Court’s Sunshine: By Request Only

Spectators line up outside of the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C.

Photograph by Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg

Spectators line up outside of the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C.

By law, members of the public are entitled to see the financial disclosure reports filed every year by federal judges.

The law doesn’t say the judges have to make it easy.

Unlike other top government officials, Supreme Court justices and the rest of the federal judiciary make their disclosure forms available only after requesters complete a series of steps reminiscent of the pre-Internet age. The instructions involve fax machines, money orders and a waiting period that can last as long as a month.

“There’s really no reason that it should be this difficult for journalists and members of the public to get access to their federal disclosure reports in 2014,” said Gabe Roth, spokesman for the Coalition for Court Transparence, a collection of legal and media organizations that today urged the Supreme Court to post the forms online.

Under the Ethics Reform Act, judges have until May 15 to submit their annual financial disclosure forms. Among other things, those documents list the stock holdings that often force judges to disqualify themselves from business cases.

People seeking copies of the  filings must fill out a request form and then fax or mail it to the judiciary’s administrative office. Several weeks later, they can pick up a paper copy — provided they bring a check or money order to cover the duplication costs.

“It’s a process that’s set by a committee of judges of the Judicial Conference of the United States, and it’s not inconsistent with the Ethics Reform Act,” said David Sellers, a spokesman for the federal judiciary’s administrative office.

That law sets up special rules aimed to ensure the safety of federal judges and their families. Court officials may redact some information, such as a spouse’s work address, for security reasons, Sellers said. Officials also tell the judges who has requested their forms.

Convoluted or not, the law doesn’t prohibit outside groups from posting the forms. Roth says his group will do just that this year once it receives the forms filed by the high court’s nine justices.

 

 

 

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