Bill seeks to increase D.C.’s judicial transparency

Effort comes in the wake of Center for Public Integrity report

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A new congressional bill is calling for greater transparency in how District of Columbia judges report their financial ties, a response to a 2013 Center for Public Integrity investigation that gave the city a failing grade.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton plans to introduce legislation on Monday that would put the financial disclosure requirements of D.C. court judges closer in line with those of federal judges.

“It’s out of sync with other states’ courts,” said the longstanding Democratic representative.  “I don’t see why Congress should stand in the way.”

The legislation must go through Congress, rather than the D.C. Council, because of the peculiar relationship the city has as the nation’s capital.

And that quirk highlights the oddity of the existing situation: District of Columbia Court judges’ paychecks come from the federal government, but the judges currently aren’t held to the same standard as federal judges when it comes to publicly disclosing where they invest that money.

Annual disclosure reports typically show judges’ income, investments, debts and gifts. But in the case of the disclosures from the city’s Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges, only two of the disclosure form’s 10 sections — “Business and Charitable Affiliations” and “Honorarium” — are open for public inspection.

That makes it difficult for those coming before the courts to have confidence that judges’ personal financial interests are not affecting their cases.

As a result, the Center for Public Integrity gave the District an “F” for its poor judicial disclosure and ranked it tied for 47th among state high courts nationwide.

The only states that scored worse ­— Montana, Idaho and Utah — did not require judges to publicly file annual reports at all. (In light of the Center’s report, however, Montana’s Supreme Court has since ordered judges to file the same financial disclosures as other statewide officials.)

Norton’s bill calls for making the D.C. judges’ reports available for public inspection, with provisions for information to be redacted if specific personal details could endanger a judge or a family member.

She told the Center for Public Integrity that she wants the District to go even further than the federal government in making the information accessible. She said she plans to ask the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, which collects the reports, to make them available online.

News of the legislation was welcomed by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, which had been working behind the scenes since 2014 to reform the disclosure rules.

“This was an anomaly and the bill will help correct a longstanding problem,” said Fritz Mulhauser, a coalition member who championed a change. “We look forward to the passage of the bill.”

Norton is optimistic the reform will pass even though she is a Democratic non-voting delegate in a Republican-run Congress plagued by legislative logjams.

“This is the kind of bill I have been able to get through,” Norton said. “I certainly am going to give it an old school try.”

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