Washington, D.C.—Today, President Biden signed into law the Senate version of Congresswoman Deborah Ross’ (D-NC) legislation, the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act. The bill will require online publication of financial disclosure reports for federal judges and mandate that federal judges submit periodic transaction reports for certain securities transactions. Following reporting in the Wall Street Journal that more than 130 federal judges heard cases in which they or their families held stock in a company involved in the proceeding, the bill will strengthen judicial ethics and transparency and help to restore trust in the nation’s courts.
This legislation was introduced in the House by Representatives Ross, Issa (R-CA), Johnson (D-GA), Roy (R-TX), and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Nadler (D-NY). It was led in the Senate by Senators Coons (D-DE), Cornyn (R-TX), Kennedy (R-LA), Whitehouse (D-RI), Cruz (R-TX), and Ossoff (D-GA), along with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Durbin (D-IL) and Ranking Member Grassley (R-IA).
To access a downloadable version of Congresswoman Ross’s speech on the House Floor, click here.
“The American people deserve to have confidence that they will be treated fairly when they seek justice in court,” said Congresswoman Ross. “However, the lack of transparency surrounding the financial conflicts of federal judges in cases they’re overseeing calls into question the very principle of blind justice in our country. Today is the start of restoring public trust in our judiciary, as President Biden signed our bipartisan bill to hold federal judges to the same financial transaction disclosure requirements as members of the legislative and executive branches of government. I was proud to work with my colleagues in both chambers, on both sides of the aisle to get this bill across the finish line and I look forward to seeing it improve our judicial branch.”
The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act requires that federal judges’ financial disclosure reports be made publicly available online and mandates that federal judges submit periodic reports of securities transactions in line with other federal officials under the STOCK Act. The bill would amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to:
- Require the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to create a searchable online database of judicial financial disclosure forms and post those forms within 90 days of being filed, and
- Subject federal judges to the STOCK Act’s requirement of filing periodic transaction reports within 45 days of securities transactions over $1,000.
Importantly, the bill also preserves the existing ability of judges to request redactions of personal information on financial disclosure reports due to a security concern.
Under current ethics guidelines and federal law, federal judges are prohibited from hearing cases that involve a party in which they, their spouse, or their minor children have a financial interest. Federal judges are instead supposed to disqualify themselves in any proceeding in which their impartiality may be questioned. Despite this, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that between 2010 and 2018, more than 130 federal judges failed to recuse themselves in nearly 700 cases in which they or an immediate family member held stock in a company involved in the case.
While federal judges are required to submit financial disclosure reports, current law does not provide sufficient transparency or certainty for litigants to discern if the judge has a conflict of interest. The current process for obtaining judicial financial disclosure forms can be cumbersome and take months or even years. By contrast, financial disclosure reports for the President, Members of Congress, and Presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed officials are readily available and searchable online.
Litigants need real-time access to judges’ financial disclosures and securities transactions in order to preserve the integrity of the proceedings and ensure a recusal when there’s a potential conflict of interest in their case. The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act would enact necessary updates to disclosure rules and provide litigants and the public with greater confidence in the judicial system.
Bill text can be found here. To access a downloadable version of Congresswoman Ross’s speech on the House Floor, click here.