Information on judges' disclosures often blacked out

Redacted information includes gifts, investments and income

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A U.S. Courts of Appeals judge earned more than $73,000 outside the courtroom in 2012 and took multiple trips on someone else’s dime in the two prior years.

But the mandatory financial disclosure reports of 9th Circuit Judge Carlos Bea do not make clear how he earned the money or who footed the bill for five of his trips. That’s because the information was blacked out, hiding everything from a board membership to information about some of his investments.

Bea, who declined to discuss his redactions via the clerk of court, is not the only federal appellate judge who had text obscured from his report. Of 255 judges on the second-highest courts in the nation, the financial disclosure reports of 111 of them had portions that were blacked out, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis.

If visible, the blacked-out information would include details about gifts they received, income they earned and investments they held. Additionally, some judges have failed to disclose the names of the companies that pay them royalties for pulling oil and gas from their property, the employment of their spouses or even the value of their investments.

Such gaps and deliberate redactions make it difficult for the public to determine whether the judges’ financial and community ties may improperly overlap with their work on the courts. Using the disclosure reports, the Center found 26 examples in which federal appellate judges violated the law by ruling on cases in which they had a financial interest.

Those ties were visible. It’s not clear what information could be hidden behind the redacted text or missing information.

Judges are responsible for filling out the forms annually, so missing or incomplete information is their responsibility. Yet they and court officials say redactions are necessary to protect judges whose high-profile and often controversial rulings can leave them vulnerable to security threats.

“The judiciary is acutely aware of the importance of balancing the public’s right to know with that of the safety of a judge and his or her family,” said David Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

But some redactions border on the absurd. For example, one judge’s disclosure removes the words “farm located at” from a property listing — a redaction that was neither requested by the judge nor seemingly necessary to protect him from threats.

William G. Ross, a Samford University law professor in Alabama who specializes in judicial ethics, said it’s not easy for the courts to determine when it’s appropriate to black out certain information. But while each redaction request should be evaluated independently, he said, litigants have a profound interest in knowing what’s in judges’ financial disclosures.

The missing information

A GAO report from 2004 found nearly 600 redactions on federal judges’ reports from 1999 to 2002. During the three-year period, the agency reported, roughly 90 percent of the 661 redaction requests made by federal judges were granted by the judiciary. The redactions revealed in the report raised concerns among judicial ethics experts that the judiciary was being too lax in accepting redaction requests.

A decade later, the Center’s review of similar forms found that some appellate judges’ financial disclosures included just one or two redactions, while others had dozens. First Circuit Judge Michael Boudin, for example, had a total of 189 redactions in his 19-page report. In most cases, it appeared to be just a letter or two that was obscured from his investments.

Of the judges whose reports did contain redactions, more than nine appeared on average per report, according to the Center’s analysis.

The name of a university that paid into 2nd Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes’ pension plan starting in 1984 was removed. The source that reimbursed 3rd Circuit Judge Anthony Scirica for a 10-day teaching gig in Italy is blacked out. Redactions hide the source of income for 7th Circuit Judge Ann Williams’ husband, a banking executive who was also a registered lobbyist at the time.

Neither the judges, nor the court system, are required to explain the reasons for the redactions.

The post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act of 1978 required federal judges, along with legislative and executive branch officials, to publicly report their financial assets and those of  their spouses and dependent children each year. But in 1998, Congress allowed certain sensitive information to be redacted from judges’ reports.

Such information can be removed either by request of the judge or by court staff if it is considered to be excess personal information not required by statute. Such information may include the names of family members, account numbers or street addresses.

Some information is removed because of a specific threat, Sellers said, while other information is blacked out because of the risk it could pose.

Judges’ redaction requests must be approved by a committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference. Committee officials consult with the U.S. Marshals Service on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the judges have demonstrated a clear connection between a security risk and the information they seek to redact, Sellers said.

Judges do not routinely request redactions, yet such requests are almost always granted. Of the nearly 4,400 judicial financial disclosure reports released to the public in 2011, Sellers said, 154 judges’ reports were partially redacted for security reasons upon judges’ requests. Only four requests due to security issues were denied.

Sellers said security redactions are most commonly granted when information reveals the physical location of judges or their family members. Other requests, he said, are approved when redactions are based on “specific threats,” including those relating to identity theft.

Security threats

Judges do have legitimate security concerns. In 1989, 11th Circuit Judge Robert Vance was killed by a mail bomb delivered to his Alabama home.

The U.S. Marshals Service provides security for all federal judges, including response to threats 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Federal judges can also choose to have security systems installed in their homes at the government’s expense, according to the U.S. Marshals.

But another way of protecting judges is to hide their personal information.

In her 2012 financial disclosure, 7th Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner redacted the names of three different organizations — two nonprofits and a university — where she serves on boards. She also blacked out the source of a $1,800 gift she described as a “Partial Honorary Membership.” She told the Center the gift was a membership to a private social club.

A few years ago, Rovner said she found a man waiting for her at the social club who previously had a case before her. “In strong terms,” she said, “he wanted to know why I ruled against him.”

After the incident, Rovner said the U.S. Marshals suggested that she redact certain information from her financial disclosure, including the club membership. She also has the names of her board memberships blacked out, she said, because people could find out the locations and times of board meetings, then confront her.

“The public has every right to know every stock I own,” Rovner said. “But they don’t have the right to know where I go after hours.”

Rovner said she understands that threats come with the territory of being a federal judge. “I’m probably being overly cautious,” the judge added.

But, she said, she doesn’t think most people realize how often she and other judges receive “very odd messages” from people unhappy with their rulings.

Arthur Hellman, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies the federal courts, said the security threats federal judges face are not imagined.

“There are threats, and they are taken seriously,” he said. “Judges are sentencing dangerous criminals. And there are lots of crazy people in our society.”

Since December, the Judicial Conference has withheld 1st Circuit Judge Norman Stahl’s 2012 disclosure from the Center for such security concerns, according to Kristina Usry of the U.S. Courts financial disclosure office. The conference is considering redacting Stahl’s entire form as a result of violent threats against the judge from a stalker, she said.

Unrequested redactions

But sometimes even judges can’t explain why their financial disclosures include redactions. Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy’s 2010 financial disclosure included redactions that obscured some of her investment descriptions, as well as the amount and value of every investment.

“I don’t know why that would be,” Murphy told the Center. “I did not ask for the redactions.”

Murphy said she previously had some death threats over the years but seemed surprised that the values of her investments would be blacked out.

In fact, most of the redactions on judges’ reports were not requested by the judges, Sellers said. Most of them are made by court officials when judges report information that is not required by statute, such as spouse names, social security numbers and home addresses.

However, he said, such redactions do not involve issues related to conflicts or possible recusal by a judge.

It is difficult for the public to verify that, though, when the information isn’t visible.

But even beyond the potential for conflicts, some redactions don’t seem to have any obvious reason for being made.

A law clerk for 9th Circuit Judge Edward Leavy was puzzled when the Center asked about the redaction in the judge’s 2012 financial disclosure that blacked out part of the description of real estate located in Marion County, Ore. Reports from prior years had the words "Farm located at" in that space.

“It’s a family property where his son raises hops, so I don’t know why that would have been redacted,” said Kathleen Dodds, a longtime law clerk for the judge who helps Leavy fill out the annual financial reports.

She added that the judge wanted it to be known that he did not request the information to be removed. Dodds said court officials probably made the redaction because they considered the information “over-reporting.”

But the entry didn’t have an address, Dodds said, and much of the county is farmland. “So there’s no clear-cut reason why that was redacted,” she said.