A committee of federal judges has permanently barred an Internet news organization from receiving public documents that list judges' investments, a move attacked as "an offense" by a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In a statement released yesterday, the U.S. Judicial Conference disclosure committee said permitting the Internet company APBnews.com to collect the statements and post them on the Web could endanger federal judges. The judicial conference, made up of judges from around the country, sets policy for the federal judiciary.
The committee simultaneously lifted a nationwide moratorium on the release to other requesters of personal financial disclosure reports of federal judges. U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch of Florida ordered the unprecedented moratorium two weeks ago after he learned APBnews.com was seeking reports for all 1,600 federal judges.
The committee said by posting the reports on the Web, the news organization would violate a requirement that it supply a list of everyone on whose behalf the copies had been requested. The committee also said Internet publication would circumvent a law that allows the judiciary to black out "personal and sensitive information" on the reports if it could endanger a judge.
The committee did not explain how the lists, which generally include no addresses or telephone numbers, could threaten a judge's safety. Court officials have said they cannot identify any instance in which the reports have been used to harm a judge.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he was disappointed.
"The unilateral decision of the conference to block Internet access to all information is an offense to the openness that helps define our system of government," Grassley said in a statement. "The public has a right to be informed about potential conflicts of interest for judges, just as it does for members of Congress and the administration."
A spokeswoman for Grassley pointed out that news organizations in New York City and Kansas City, Kan., already post scores of the reports on the Internet. She questioned whether the decision also means the U.S. Judicial Conference will now ban releases to newspapers that publish their articles on Web sites.
Jeffrey Shaman, a judicial ethicist at DePaul University in Chicago, said "the latest order of the Judicial Conference goes well beyond the intent of the statute. It does not authorize carte blanche denial of information that is not personal and sensitive."
Some lawyers speculated that judges want to slow release of the reports because they increasingly have been used to unearth embarrassing conflicts of interest. Earlier this year, public interest lawyer Doug Kendall used the reports to show that federal appellate judges had ruled on cases involving companies in which they owned stock, despite a federal law designed to prevent such conflicts.
"I don't see how they can do this," Kendall said.
Journalist groups also had urged the conference to release the reports. Kyle Niederpruem, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said similar reports filed by members of Congress have long been on the Internet without creating security problems. "You just can't create a caste system for disclosure. It's discriminatory."
Niederpruem said the ban raises many questions. Will journalists be asked how they plan to use the reports before they can be released? Will newspapers be required to submit lists of subscribers with their requests?
Federal court spokesman David Sellers said the answers remain unclear. "There is no guidance beyond the statement" by the committee, he said. Sellers declined to say whether Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, head of the conference, approved the committee's decision. A secretary for Zloch, who chairs the disclosure committee, said the judge was ill and would not return telephone calls.
APBnews said it plans to file suit to free the reports.
"This may be the first time that the government has declared the Internet off-limits for specific kinds of documents," said Mark Sauter of APBnews.com. "This action violates the spirit and intent of the law."
Sauter said posting the lists on the Internet would be a public service.
Senior members of all three branches of the federal government are required to report annually all family assets within broad ranges of worth. The judiciary has traditionally made their reports more difficult to review than those filed by lawmakers.
After Congress complained last year, judges reduced copying fees and stopped requiring that requests be notarized. But the judicial conference continued to identify to a judge the name of anyone reviewing his or her reports. Critics charged the system was designed to discourage lawyers and litigants from looking for financial conflicts, as the disclosure act intended.
In March, the disclosure committee rejected requests that it make the reports more readily available, saying "it is clear that disclosures of this nature intrude on judges' financial privacy."