Federal Judges Edit Their Financial Statements

By Anne Lowe

OPEN GOVERNMENT – Federal judges are allowed to censor their financial disclosures showing which companies they or their spouses hold stock in before they are released to the public, the Associated Press reported today.

Financial report requests for judges can take up to two weeks for fulfillment and judges are also notified when someone requests a copy, the article says. In contrast, financial reports for members of the House of Representatives can be obtained online and without any notice to the member; requests for members of the executive branch are filled within a day or two.

And in California the statements of economic interests of judges, like those of other influential public officers and employees, are required to be  made immediately available upon entirely anonymous request at their place of employment.

But as AP reports:

Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the (federal) judiciary, said the notification of judges and review of reports is done solely for the safety of judges and their families. Reviews have allowed court officers to black out information that could reveal where a spouse works, for instance, Carelli said.

In 2008, for example, reports for 120 judges were edited to remove some information before their release, according to an annual report the judges send Congress.

Yet the system can delay the release of a report when a timely disclosure could affect an ongoing case and where no safety concerns are present.

The judge who overturned the Obama administration's moratorium on deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil spill took part in the case even though he owned up to $15,000 in Exxon Mobil stock and the company had one of the 33 existing exploratory rigs shut down by the drilling ban.

But the public did not know that U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman owned Exxon Mobil stock because his report was not available. After his ruling, Feldman revealed that he owned the stock but sold it prior to issuing his decision.

Feldman said he didn't learn he owned the stock until June 21, the same day he heard arguments from energy companies challenging the moratorium and the administration.

Under the filing deadlines, his report should have been available.

Federal law requires judges to disqualify themselves from hearing cases involving a company in which they have a financial interest. More broadly, the law says a judge should step aside from a matter "in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

Computer software maintained by the federal judiciary is supposed to signal when a judge owns stock in a company that is a party to a lawsuit. Exxon Mobil was not a party to the lawsuit that Feldman heard.

Judicial Watch spends a couple of thousand dollars a year for a mountain of paper about federal judges' financial holdings. The reports are supposed to be available for public inspection by mid-June, but it typically takes the group around three months to compile, scan and post the reports on their website, where they may be read free of charge.

Judges will be able to file their reports electronically beginning next year, but they have not taken any steps to make the material available in the same fashion, rather than on paper.

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