Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2000 /11 Shevat, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- HERE IN THE NATION'S CAPITAL of control freaks, few can outmatch the federal judiciary. It isn't enough for autocrats on the high bench to erode individual rights, expand regulatory power, and trash the U.S. Constitution for a living. Now, by supreme fiat, a panel of federal judges wants to muzzle one of the most effective legal watchdogs on the Internet.
This is a crucial First Amendment case that pits the Beltway Star Chamber against cutting-edge online journalists.
APBNews.com is a comprehensive source on the Web for news and data on all aspects of the criminal justice system. In addition to online investigative projects and breaking reports, the site provides free and unprecedented public access to live police scanners, local crime maps, a national sex offender registry, serial killer bureau, and missing children's archives. In partnership with MSNBC, APBNews also publishes "G-Files," a weekly report on U.S. government documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act.
In September, APBNews filed a freedom of information request seeking access to the 1998 financial disclosure forms of every federal judge and magistrate in the nation - 1,600 in all. All federal officials must file yearly statements of gifts, loans, stock holdings, and family assets. It's illegal for judges to sit on cases if they have stock in any of the litigants' holdings.
Perhaps no other institution in Washington is as ripe for media scrutiny as the federal judiciary. Its members are appointed for life and its administrative operations are shrouded in secrecy. A few mainstream news outlets have published the financial records of federal judges in their regions. But APBNews' plan to post the entire federal judiciary's financial filings on the Internet - 13,000 pages on a searchable database - is the most ambitious to date.
Anyone, anywhere, anytime, could find out whether a federal judge had a financial conflict of interest in a given case. The public records, which are locked up in the judiciary's D.C. administrative office and often take visitors two weeks to access, would truly be public. Citizens wouldn't have to wait for newspapers - or any other traditional information middlemen -- to do the digging.
That threat has the federal bench's black robes in a bunch. The U.S. Judicial Conference on Financial Disclosure last week permanently barred APBNews from receiving the financial disclosure forms. APBNews plans to file suit.
Who are these imperious officials thwarting the cyber-public's right to know about judicial finances? The Judicial Conference is the principal policy-making body of the U.S. courts. The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is the presiding officer and has sole authority to make appointments to conference committees. In a written statement, the disclosure panel said that revealing "personal and sensitive information" could endanger the judges who filed financial disclosure records.
Any self-respecting jurist would hold such bogus reasoning in contempt. The public disclosure forms, filed uneventfully by members of Congress and cabinet officials every year, contain no personal information - no home addresses, no phone numbers, no Social Security numbers. Just the financial facts. Many states already put such data online. Existing law already allows for redaction of sensitive information from individual records.
And remember, the judges had no problem when traditional media outlets disseminated these very same documents to the public.
Such selective secrecy and paranoia is typical. Until last year, the federal judiciary charged higher copying fees for those requesting public records and required that requests be notarized. Even more noxious and chilling, the judicial conference continues to keep tabs on anyone who requests public records by requiring them to provide their names, home addresses, and occupations. By contrast, judges in western Missouri allow anonymous public review of their asset statements and other states are following suit.
The federal panel's refusal to make financial documents as accessible as possible has less to do with protecting physical security than with preserving political comfort. These judges have controlled damage to their reputations by practicing trickle-down public disclosure unchallenged for decades. But with boundless space and once-unthinkable speed, New Media outlets such as APBNews can expose the workings of government in a way that old journalism could achieve only in its dreams.
For judicial overlords with something to hide, such high-tech sunlight is a
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