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.