APBnews.com receives some judicial records for posting online

Friday, June 23, 2000

WASHINGTON — Posting financial disclosure forms for federal judges and Supreme Court justices on the Internet goes a long way toward making the judiciary as accountable to the public as the two other branches of government, according to the lawyer for an online news company that sued to get the information.

Mark Zaid said APBnews.com was pleased to finally receive the 1998 financial disclosure forms for the nine Supreme Court justices and about half of the 1,600 federal judges and magistrates in the United States, and the company quickly posted them on its Web site. But Zaid said concerns remained over the 800 other forms still being held up as the judges sought to delete more of their personal information.

Those deletions — known in legal parlance as ‘redactions’ — caused the lengthy delays in releasing the financial disclosure forms to APBnews.com after the U.S. Judicial Conference agreed to do so, Zaid said. The Judicial Conference is a 27-judge policy-making board of directors for the federal judiciary. Ironically, that same financial material has been available by request to the public and journalists from traditional print and broadcast media for more than 20 years under the Ethics in Government Act, which also covers the executive and legislative branches of government.

But something about posting the information on the Internet set off alarm bells in the judiciary and forced APBnews.com, which covers crime, justice and safety issues, to go to great lengths — including the lawsuit — to get the materials. The judges said their rationale in withholding the information from APB was the potential for harm to either the judges or their families.

‘Their concerns are that once it’s online, they can’t do anything to control it,’ Zaid said. ‘A lot (of the concern) is exaggerated; some is understandable.’

However, he said the problems that the judges were citing could have been ‘easily resolved without litigation that has now gone on six months … if the Judicial Conference had just been reasonable.’

‘No one wants a judge harmed,’ Zaid continued, ‘and if they had just come to us and said here is our concern,’ a compromise might have been struck.

‘I really do think that this has been an exaggerated fear,’ he said. ‘Also, part of the problem has been because the judges do not understand the nature of the Internet. They do not understand that there is much information already available (online) about them and their families, and that nothing in these documents would enable someone to cause them harm.’

Financial disclosure forms have been available online for several years for members of Congress and the executive branch.

‘Unfortunately, of the three branches of government, the judiciary is lagging behind the other two in openness,’ Zaid said.

He said the judges were ‘attempting to gain extended protection’ not available to legislative or executive branch officials. He said APB sought the information ‘to fill a void that was very large’ and ‘to let the public know of a judge’s financial holdings to avoid conflict of interest. This was a very necessary step … to bring the judicial branch in line with the other two branches.’

The efforts by APB to get the financial disclosure information date to last September. After studying the matter, a committee of the Judicial Conference refused to release the records. That prompted APBnews.com to go to court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan in December.

In March, on the advice of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, the Judicial Conference reversed itself and agreed to release the data. But by April 28, no forms had been turned over, and a hearing was held before Judge Jed Rakoff, who has been monitoring the situation. Meanwhile, some members of Congress expressed their irritation at the delays in releasing the information.

Although APBnews.com is clearly happy to receive the records, Zaid said it was still uneasy about the redactions, apparently done by the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure, which did not let anyone know what it was doing. The committee agreed that certain information would be deleted, Zaid said, then gave judges the option of reviewing the forms and making an appeal if they wanted even more information withheld.

Zaid said those additional redactions may make APBnews.com continue its lawsuit.

APBnews.com will decide shortly whether to raise a constitutional challenge to some portions of the Ethics in Government Act that deal with punishment for violating the statute and that require information on the people requesting information under the law, he said. Also, he said, the company may decide to challenge some of the redactions made by the judges, claiming they violate the law.

Although APBnews.com has an uncertain future (the company has run out of funds, is seeking a new owner and has laid off most of its employees), Zaid says arrangements have been made to keep the suit active and make sure the information is posted on the Internet.

‘Regardless of what happens to APB, the lawsuit will somehow remain alive, and the records will be posted online somewhere,’ he said.