WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Coalition for Court Transparency, a group of media and legal organizations that advocate for a more open and accountable U.S. Supreme Court, called on the justices today to post their 2013 financial disclosure reports online, either on the Court’s website or on the website of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO).
Each year, the President, Vice President, and members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate release their annual disclosures online on or around May 15, the day that they are due by statute to their designated ethics offices. By contrast, individuals looking to access the justices’ reports are required to undertake an antiquated process that often lasts weeks or months and involves unnecessary obstacles for the public and for journalists who cover the Court.
Currently, to obtain a copy of a justice’s disclosure report, an individual must fill out a “request for examination” that includes the requester’s name, address, occupation, and organizational affiliation. He or she must then mail or fax the completed form to the AO, after which the AO will notify him or her of the cost to be sent the reports – $0.20 per page, payable only by check or money order. As with those of lower federal judges, each justice will also be told who specifically has requested a copy of his or her report – a practice that could intimidate some requesters. Financial disclosures may also be viewed by appointment through the AO’s Office of the Committee on Financial Disclosures in Washington, D.C. With all these steps, the reports typically are not released to the public until mid-June or later, more than a month after the justices submit them to the AO.
The disclosure reports are essential for journalists covering the Supreme Court, in part, because of the justices’ longstanding practice of refusing to explain why they recuse themselves in individual cases – another tradition that fails the test of transparency. In most cases, the only way a reporter or member of the public can figure out the reason for a justice stepping aside in a given case is to see if a disclosure report reveals any stock or asset ownership that would pose a conflict of interest – and, even then, it is often only a guess.
“There are a number of actions the Supreme Court could carry out to comport with 21st century expectations of transparency. Posting their annual disclosure reports online is among the easiest,” said Michael Ostrolenk, cofounder and national director of the Liberty Coalition, a CCT member. “We taxpayers compensate the nine justices and their staffs, we pay for the ongoing renovations to the Court building, and we even pay to maintain the Court’s website. That we have to jump through hoops to obtain basic, statutory information from some of our nation’s top public officials is incongruous, especially given the ease of distribution modern technology affords us.”
“At a time when the justices are deciding a number of important cases based on new technologies, there is a certain irony that the financial disclosure process still involves formal written requests and fax machines,” said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a CCT member. “We hope the justices lead the Judicial Conference by example here by releasing their disclosure reports online, just as senior Article I and Article II officials do.”
“Time and again – whether it’s with disclosure policies or rejecting certain press credentials or not allowing live audio of arguments to be streamed outside the building – the Supreme Court is making it harder for the press to do its job and cover our nation’s top judicial officers,” said David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a CCT member. “We are hopeful, though, that as time passes and technology progresses, the justices will be more open to allowing the modern methods of journalistic coverage permitted by other branches of government.”
Though the coalition is calling on the justices to make these reports available online, the CCT requested the reports in the traditional way, outlined above, earlier this week and, if it obtains them, will post them at OpenSCOTUS.com.
Financial disclosure obligations are based in the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, which requires high-ranking federal officials, including Supreme Court justices, to list their personal financial interests publicly in order to identify and prevent potential conflicts of interest and ensure that government employees are following their respective ethical guidelines.
Information the justices are required to record in their reports includes annual compensation outside of the Court, such as through speaking engagements or teaching, for them and for their spouse; any business-related trips they did not pay for themselves; any securities they own; and any profits they may have netted from sale of stock.
The coalition’s website has installed a clock widget counting down to May 15 that is hyperlinked to the AO’s “request for examination” page in order to assist individuals who would like to request a justice’s disclosure report.
On Wednesday a new national poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps revealed that a majority of Americans (59 percent) believe the justices’ disclosure reports should be posted online.