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FTC Spearheads Letter to Congressional Leaders on What Meaningful, Pro-Transparency Court Reform Should Look Like

Signed by groups left, right and center, “five principles” letter delivered today to House and Senate Judiciary Committees

Eighteen organizations from the government transparency, civic engagement and media trades are calling on congressional leaders to craft court reform legislation this session comprising five principles that, implemented together, would vastly improve transparency and accountability in the federal courts.

Rather than proposing legislative language in their letter or provoking a row on audio vs. video, these groups – led by Fix the Court, the Project on Government Oversight and R Street Institute – decided to unite behind overarching principles that can build the foundation for discussions with House and Senate Judiciary Committee leadership in the weeks ahead.

These principles are:

improved broadcast access, to ensure the public can follow the work of the judiciary as it occurs;

improved access to court documents, to ensure the public can retrieve federal case filings with greater ease and at a lower cost;

improved workplace conduct rules, to ensure the judiciary promotes a harassment-free work environment;

improved oversight and ethics rules, to ensure all federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, follow a robust ethics rubric, post their annual financial statements online and explain their periodic recusals; and

improved judicial administration, to ensure the judiciary has the staff and resources it needs to carry out its mission.

A handful of court transparency bills have already been introduced this year, including the Electronic Courts Record Reform Act (H.R. 1164) and the Supreme Court Ethics Act (H.R. 1057 and S. 292); however, should lawmakers choose to take a more comprehensive approach to fixing the judiciary’s reluctance to modernize – as some have in the past and as the signers believe they should – then these baseline principles are ones that can help guide their work.

“We believe that carefully crafted reform legislation will result in a better public understanding of, and respect for, the judiciary,” the letter states, “[…] and that no entity within our third branch of government is, or is perceived to be, above the law.” Read the full letter here.

The groups joining Fix the Court, R Street and POGO on the letter are the American Society of Magazine Editors, American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Free Law Project, Government Accountability Project, Government Information Watch, National Press Photographers Association, National Security Counselors, Niskanen Center, Open the Government, Republicans for the Rule of Law, Stand Up Republic and Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.

“Though there may be some disagreement on how exactly to get there, we know there’s broad support across the country for a more open and accountable third branch,” said Fix the Court executive director Gabe Roth. “By bringing disparate groups together to articulate these court reform principles, we’re communicating to Chairmen Graham and Nadler and Ranking Members Feinstein and Collins that any legislation encompassing these concepts would prove popular and effective.”

“Improving the public’s understanding of and faith in the courts isn’t a partisan issue,” said Sarah Turberville, the director of The Constitution Project at the Project on Government Oversight. “We look forward to working with Congress to make these important principles part of the new framework governing our judiciary.”

“These principles identify commonsense reforms that will improve the efficiency in and understanding of the federal court system,” said R Street Institute research associate, and former federal court clerk, Anthony Marcum.

About a quarter of the 115th Congress supported legislation that would have improved transparency and accountability across the judiciary – ethics bills, broadcast bills and the like. The most promising among them, having passed House Judiciary by voice vote in Sept. 2018, was the Judiciary ROOM Act (H.R. 6755), which would have added new district judgeships in 2021; compelled live audio and video in circuit courts and same-day audio at SCOTUS; implemented a new code of conduct and recusal explanations for the justices; and required periodic medical exams for all federal judges.

Though the signers of today’s letter may not have supported all the provisions in the erstwhile bills, the growing interest from the organizations and their constituents in judicial reform – and in government transparency, in general – is what led to this effort.

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