By Tony Mauro
A group of open-government advocates is calling on the Supreme Court to improve public access to the financial disclosure forms justices fill out every year. Instead of releasing the documents in paper form through the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on a delayed basis, and only on request, the groups say the court should make them immediately available online.
"We strongly urge the Court to increase its overall transparency by posting the Justices’ financial disclosure forms on its website as soon as they become available each year, beginning with those filed in 2013," the organizations said in a July 23 letter sent to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.
"This policy change will make it much easier for interested citizens to access the Justices’ financial information, promoting public confidence in the federal government in general, and in the Supreme Court in particular," according to the letter. "As the highest court in the nation, the Supreme Court would also serve as a powerful model of transparency and openness for the rest of the judiciary—both state and federal."
In making the request, the organizations noted that the president, vice president and members of Congress post their financial disclosures online quickly. "Indeed, the U.S. House and Senate even provide searchable databases containing this information," the letter states.
Common Cause, which has been urging greater transparency from the court on several fronts in recent years, was joined by these organizations in sending the letter: Alliance for Justice, Association of Research Libraries, The Center for Media and Democracy, Center for Public Integrity, Justice at Stake, OpenTheGovernment.org and the Society of American Archivists.
Changing the procedures for releasing financial disclosure forms would not be easy for the high court or for lower federal courts, because of laws and regulations that make it a cumbersome process—a process managed by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, not by the Supreme Court or other courts.
Those requesting the financial disclosures fill out a written form, which is then sent, in most cases, to the judge whose disclosure form is being sought. The disclosure forms, which reveal a judge's assets and income, are also redacted before release for security reasons, so that a judge's signature and other information, including a spouse's place of employment and the location of rental properties, are obscured from public view. When the forms are ready for release, requesters must obtain them, at a cost of 20 cents per page, in person or by mail.
Once released, they are available online only when and if non-government organizations scan and post them on their web sites. One place where justices' forms can be viewed is opensecrets.org.
An early attempt to post the disclosure forms online was initially blocked by the Administrative Office in 1999.
The now-defunct APBnews.com requested the financial disclosure forms of all Supreme Court and lower federal court judges for the purpose of posting them online. When the Administrative Office refused, the news organization went to court. Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist defused the conflict by urging the Judicial Conference to find a way to release the forms in a way that would not jeopardize judges' safety, which led to the redaction process. The forms were finally released in 2000.
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