It’s “vital legislation that will boost public trust in the judiciary and codify judicial ethics,” said one watchdog group.
Ethics watchdogs on Wednesday welcomed passage of legislation tightening financial disclosure requirements for federal judges as a step toward addressing a widespread crisis that still requires broader reforms.
The legislation is the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act, which takes on “the alarming lack of transparency in the personal financial holdings of federal judges, and the conflicts—or appearance of conflicts—those holdings can create in the cases those judges are asked to decide,” as the House Judiciary Democrats put it.
Passed by a voice vote in the House on Wednesday after clearing the Senate in February, the bipartisan measure now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk.
The bill’s advancement comes months after a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that, from 2010 to 2018, 131 judges heard nearly 700 cases in which they or their family had interests, violating federal law.
Adding to recent concerns about the impartiality of the federal judiciary is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ failure to recuse himself in cases related to the January 6, 2001 attack on the Capitol in light of his wife’s texts to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pushing for the 2020 election results to be overturned.
The measure would amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 in two ways. It would establish a searchable online database with judges’ financial disclosure forms within 90 days of them being filed.
It would additionally extend the federal STOCK Act requirement to cover federal judges, forcing them to file periodic transaction reports for securities transactions over $1,000.
10 years ago Congress passed the STOCK Act, bringing transparency to certain stock trades & other financial moves by Members of Congress & other high-ranking public officials within 45 days of the action.
The bill did not cover any federal judges – from SCOTUS on down, however.
— Stephen Spaulding (@SteveESpaulding) April 26, 2022
In a statement following the vote, Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.), one of the lawmakers who introduced the measure, referenced the Journal‘s investigation and said the bill would “improve transparency, accountability, and public faith in the ability of our courts to carry out fair, impartial justice.
“This bill will hold federal judges to the same financial transaction disclosure requirements as members of the legislative and executive branches of government, eliminating an unwarranted double standard,” she said.
The Project on Government Oversight called the measure’s passage “huge news” and said it’s “vital legislation that will boost public trust in the judiciary and codify judicial ethics.”
Another government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said the passage was “a great start for judicial ethics reform.” However, the group added, “it’s not enough on its own.”
Speaking to a House panel Wednesday, CREW senior vice president and chief counsel Donald Sherman told lawmakers that “there is a crisis of confidence in our federal judiciary,” one that “is the result of a number of overlapping failures, but chief among them is the judiciary’s apparent inability to abide by the rules of ethical conduct their high office requires.”
One step to address the ethics problem is “banning judges and their families from buying and owning individual stocks,” said Sherman, calling it “the simplest way to address the financial conflicts that are undermining our judicial system.”