Nearly 600 times in recent years, a judicial committee acting in private has stripped information from reports intended to alert the public to conflicts of interest involving federal judges.
The committee decided that the information removed might tend to endanger a particular judge or put his or her financial investments at risk, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
In 55 instances, the committee withheld all information on the disclosure reports -- including details about outside income, gifts, business contracts, debts, stocks and the value of holdings. The study examined disclosure reports filed under the Ethics in Government Act from 1999 through 2002.
Specialists in judicial ethics said they were startled at the breadth of the excisions -- and particularly that the material cut included financial information that appeared to present little safety risk.
"I just can't imagine why it would be necessary to redact all of the information," said Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago and co-author of a book on judicial ethics. "I can't even guess what would be the justification."
Jeffrey Shaman, a legal ethicist at DePaul University, agreed that it would be difficult to defend all the redactions on security grounds. "It surprises me the numbers are so high," he said. "The purpose of financial disclosure is to ensure the judge doesn't have a financial conflict of interest. . . . It makes one wonder if the real reason for a judge to request the redaction is to prevent the public from learning embarrassing information."
The GAO report did not identify the judges who sought deletions.
The Ethics in Government Act requires that judges, members of Congress and senior executive branch officials file annual reports detailing positions held, businesses owned, income, free trips and debts. Watchdog organizations and the media use the reports to unearth conflicts of interest.
In the case of the judiciary, studies in recent years have shown that judges improperly issued hundreds of orders in lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock. At least one judge threw out lawsuits against a medical center on whose board he sat. Activists and reporters also used the reports to identify judges who traveled at no cost to them to resort locations to attend seminars hosted by interest groups.
Such revelations have led to requests for new trials or for judges to recuse themselves. Some groups began posting portions of the disclosure reports on the Internet.
In 1998, Congress passed legislation allowing judges to request redactions. The law authorized the U.S. Judicial Conference, in consultation with the U.S. Marshals Service, to delete specific information if it determined that the information could endanger a judge. The Judicial Conference is the principal policymaking body for the federal courts, and is chaired by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. The redaction provision is in place through 2005, when Congress will decide whether to make it permanent.
There are no similar provisions available for the president or members of Congress, whose reports are immediately available to the public on the Internet, in print and through computer terminals in the Cannon House Office Building. Officials of those branches do not consider the information a safety risk, the GAO report said. There is no known case in which the reports have been used to harm a judge or another public figure.
In 2002, 76 requesters received disclosure reports from the judiciary. Lawyers and plaintiffs have said they are reluctant to seek them because judges are supplied with the names of the requesters before documents are released.
The judges' reports are available to the public only on paper and only after lengthy delays. In 2002, the average delay was 90 days. Requesters interviewed by the GAO "each expressed frustration at how long it took," the study said.