WHAT JUDGE on the Judicial Conference's Committee on Financial Disclosure would not balk if a litigant advanced as audacious a misinterpretation of federal law as the one the committee itself has adopted with respect to disclosure of judges' financial interests? The committee this week decided to withhold from an online publisher called APBnews.com the 1998 financial disclosures of all federal judges. It determined that Internet publication would threaten the security of judges. And though the law requiring the public disclosure in no sense permits the judges -- having made such a judgment -- simply to refuse access, they have done so anyway.
The committee's stated rationale is that publication on the Internet would make it impossible to comply with a requirement that disclosures be given only in response to a written application stating the requester's name, occupation and address, and certifying that he is aware of certain prohibitions on the use of the reports. The application must also give the name and address of those people or organizations on whose behalf the reports are being requested.
The committee reads this requirement to preclude publication on the Internet, since the Judicial Conference would not know -- and would not be able to inform the judges -- who had access to the reports. The committee also contends that a new provision permitting the redaction of individual judges' disclosures when "revealing personal and sensitive information could endanger that individual" permits the wholesale denial of access to APBnews.com.
This reading of the statute is laughable -- and infuriating for being advanced by the arm of government charged with faithful interpretation of the law. The statute specifically contemplates that a news organization will use the disclosures in order to publicize their contents. Among the various prohibitions on the use of the disclosures, in fact, are "any commercial purpose, other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public [emphasis ours]."
In recent years, various news organizations -- including The Post -- and a public interest group have used judges' financial disclosures to highlight the problem of judges hearing cases when they own stock in one of the litigants. Judges may not like Congress's requirement that their disclosures be fully public. But that does not give the judiciary the right to amend the law.