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How a Bill Becomes A Law, Fix the Court Edition

It had been 44 years since the federal judiciary’s financial disclosure system got a legislative upgrade — that is, until President Biden signed the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act last Friday.

The law updates the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to require the judiciary to post online the annual financial disclosures of the 1,400 Article III judges and the 900 bankruptcy and magistrate judges within 90 days of the annual due date — that is, by mid-August each year. (Currently, advocates are still waiting for some the 2019 disclosures to be completed. That’s unacceptable!)

And the law requires judges and justices to file a report within 45 days of their stock purchases and sales greater than $1,000. Those reports are also required to be posted online by the judiciary. (Previously, only members of Congress and top legislative and executive branch staff had to file these types of reports.)

These are major improvements that will make the third branch more accountable and will help litigants, the press and the public know if our top jurists are at all financially conflicted in the cases they’re participating in.

Recall that this move toward legislation began when the Wall Street Journal, working with financial disclosure data collected by Free Law Project over several years, found that, between 2010 and 2018, 131 federal judges participated in 685 cases in which they had a financial stake in a party. That’s illegal. (And it’s been updated since the Sept. 2021 report came out; the Journal has now found 152 judges presided over more than 1,000 cases they shouldn’t have.)

Once that investigation was published, Fix the Court, Free Law Project and Project on Government Oversight sprung into action to ensure that Congress would respond — since we know too well that left to its own devices the judiciary isn’t going to properly fix itself.

We were able to find bipartisan partners in Sens. Coons and Cornyn and Reps. Ross and Issa, and after some back and forth between the branches, the bill was passed unanimously in the Senate on Feb. 17 and in the House on Apr. 27. The bill was sent to the White House on May 3, and President Biden signed it on May 13.

This goes to show that the judiciary can be modernized when Congress gets involved, and there’s much more work we believe advocates and the first branch can do together to improve the third branch — on free PACER, on anti-harassment legislation and on bills that would require ethics codes and stronger recusal, travel and gift rules at the Supreme Court and throughout the judiciary.

More that soon.

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