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FTC Wants Circuit Court Websites to Include Judges' Individual Stocks

Today Fix the Court sent letters to the judiciary’s 13 circuit executives requesting that their courts’ websites list and periodically update their judges’ individually held stocks.

Currently, if a concerned citizen wants to look up an appellate judge’s financial interests to check if the judge has a conflict in a case, he or she must file a request, via fax, with the Administrative Office for the judge’s most recent financial disclosure report and then wait several weeks to obtain a copy.

Here’s how circuit courts list their judges’ biographical information. Here’s a more transparent way to do that in a way that includes securities. Here’s a PDF of the letter.

Given that these reports are accurate as of December 31 of one calendar year but aren’t due to the AO until May 15 of the following year, and aren’t issued until mid-June at the earliest, they are at best five-and-a-half months out of date upon release. With judges permitted to request extensions, the information may be many months older than that.

To offer but one example, Third Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman sold his Time Warner shares on Jan. 8, 2016, but didn’t file his 2016 disclosure until Nov. 16, 2017. (Fix the Court requested it on May 17, 2017.) The report was finally released on Dec. 28, 2017, a week-and-a-half shy of two years after his stock sale. By comparison, members of Congress and high-ranking executive and legislative branch officials are required by law to disclose their securities transactions within 45 days.

“I’d prefer that federal judges owned no individual stocks and instead solely held the types of investments, like fixed income and mutual funds, that are unlikely to cause conflicts,” FTC executive director Gabe Roth said. “Until that day comes, listing a judge’s individual securities on their bio page seems like a reasonable request, especially when you consider how long it sometimes takes for a security transaction to make its way into a judge’s financial disclosure report.”

Unfortunately, overlooked stock conflicts are not uncommon in the federal judiciary. A 2006 report by the Washington Post found that appellate judges ruled in at least seven 2003 suits in which “they or their spouses owned stock in a company involved in the case or had other financial ties to a party in the dispute.” Soon after this study came out, the Judicial Conference of the U.S. began requiring judges to employ conflict-check software to help them determine whether they should hear a case.

Nevertheless, a 2014 Center for Public Integrity report found that two dozen appellate judges ruled on cases from 2010-2012 in which they had a stock conflict.

Though several other types of statutory conflicts are listed in the U.S. Code, FTC is not requesting that circuit courts catalogue, for instance, their judges’ family relations (due to privacy concerns) or their previous work (since this may be gleaned from PACER and Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaires) – only their individual stocks, which are the financial holdings most likely to yield a conflict.

Roth added: “The one branch of government seemingly above board these days should do all it can to stay that way, and I look forward to working with the judiciary to advance that mission.”

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