APBnews.com files lawsuit seeking release of judges’ records

Wednesday, December 22, 1999

An online news organization stymied in its effort to post more than 1,600 financial disclosure reports from the nation's federal judges filed a lawsuit this morning in federal court hoping to force the release of the records.

APBnews.com, a Web site devoted to reporting crime, safety and judicial issues, filed its claim in a New York federal court.

APBNews.com's lawsuit stems from its effort to obtain the 1998 financial disclosure reports of about 1,600 active and semi-retired federal judges and magistrates. The company planned to make all of the reports available on the Internet.

“The Internet is not just a legitimate but a superior means to disseminate these documents which are clearly public records,” said Mark Sauter, the company's chief operating officer. “To discriminate against an Internet publication is to go against the intent of Congress and the spirit of the law.”

APBnews.com named the Judicial Conference's Financial Disclosure Committee, its 15 individual members, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts and the U.S. Marshal's Service in its lawsuit.

Since 1979, federal judges and other high-ranking federal officials have been required by federal law to report all stock holdings and other family assets within broad ranges of estimated worth. They also must report gifts and other reimbursements.

But U.S. District Judge William Zloch of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., placed a temporary moratorium on the records last month. Zloch chairs a financial disclosure committee of the 28-judge U.S. Judicial Conference, which is led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and sets federal court policy.

Zloch said he ordered the moratorium out of concern that posting the reports on the Internet would mean “universal and anonymous access, raising security issues.”

On Dec. 14, a judicial panel lifted the moratorium but implied that any records request mentioning a plan to post the reports on the Internet would be rejected.

However, requesters typically are not required to disclose their dissemination plans. The reports are routinely made available to any requesters who identify themselves and disclose their occupation.

Originally, APBnews.com sought a fee waiver as provided by the Freedom of Information Act, but the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts denied the request. On Nov. 1, APBnews.com submitted a $2,516 check to cover the copying fees for 12,580 pages of documents it had planned to post on the Internet.

Mark Zaid, an attorney for APBnews.com, said: “If my client had not made that intent known, there never would have been any problem.”

Zaid noted that other news organizations had posted the reports in the past, including a New York City television station. WNBC/Channel 4 posted disclosure forms from almost 50 federal judges from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey on its Web site after it broadcast a story about possible conflicts of interest.

APBnews.com's lawsuit seeks the records and a waiver of the copying fees, Zaid said.

Dave Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, said that officials there could not comment on a pending legal case.