A federal judge has barred any release of public records that list investments held by the nation's 1,600 federal judges, halting a news organization's plan to post the information on the Internet.
U.S. District Judge William Zloch of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., issued the indefinite moratorium last week, said court spokeswoman Karen Redmond. Zloch did not make his decision public or explain his reasoning, but Redmond said he feared information on the personal financial disclosure reports could be used to harm judges.
No one had petitioned for Zloch's action, but it came as an Internet news organization was awaiting copies of the judges' disclosure reports. Zloch has scheduled an emergency meeting Friday of the U.S. Judicial Conference's financial disclosure committee, which he chairs. The agenda is not public and Zloch, who has a policy against speaking to reporters, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
"He's just saying, 'Let's stop for a while and consider this.' It's not like we're denying the public's right to know forever," Redmond said. "There are some very real fears. You can find out where a judge is teaching; you can find out where his wife works."
Zloch's actions surprised legal experts, who pointed out the reports are public under federal law. Jeffrey Shaman, a judicial ethicist at DePaul University in Chicago, questioned how lists of stocks could endanger anyone and said he knew of no authority for such a sweeping ban.
"It's a drastic step to cut off all access to this information," Shaman said. "I think the public is owed an explanation--especially since there doesn't seem any apparent reason for it."
The reports seldom include addresses or telephone numbers, he pointed out, and the judiciary may black out specific information that raises concerns. Similar reports filed by the president and members of Congress have long been available on the Internet and online services such as Lexis-Nexis.
Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he saw no justification for the moratorium.
"Any public official who draws a salary from taxpayers' money should have complete and open financial disclosure--and that includes posting on the Internet," Coble said in a written statement.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was less critical but said the judiciary should resolve the confusion quickly.
"The judges' concerns, where they are legitimate, need to be balanced with the public's right to be informed," he said. "The overall asset portfolio of a judge should be disclosed to the public."
The ban came as the Internet news operation APBnews.com awaited delivery of reports for each judge. Editor Bob Port said he requested the documents from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in September and submitted a $2,516 check to cover copying 12,580 pages.
APBnews.com, which focuses on crime and justice news, planned to post the documents on the Web as a public service aimed at plaintiffs and lawyers concerned that their judge had a conflict.
That plan grew from an investigation last year by the Kansas City Star, which discovered hundreds of instances where federal trial judges presided over lawsuits involving companies in which they owned stock. Earlier this year, a public interest group used the reports to unearth similar conflicts among appeals judges.
Reporters also use the lists to show special-interest groups had provided judges with gifts and trips.
Zloch's moratorium also stalled releases to about 40 other news organizations, Port said.
Zloch apparently initiated the ban administratively with a single telephone call. The judge has not issued an injunction or any other official judicial document.
"It's been done entirely secretly. Who do you appeal to?" said Port.
Court officials said they could not identify a single instance in which the reports had been used to harass or plan an attack on a judge.
"I don't think it's appropriate to bar access in a wholesale fashion," said Steven Lubet, a judicial ethicist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "The purpose of the statute is to make that information available."