WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), John Kennedy (R-La.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), along with Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), today introduced the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act to require online publication of financial disclosure reports for federal judges and to mandate that federal judges submit periodic transaction reports for certain securities transactions. Companion legislation will be introduced in the House by U.S. Representatives Deborah Ross (D-N.C.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Chip Roy (R-Texas), and Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“A fundamental pillar of our justice system is the right to a fair and impartial trial. Litigants need confidence that they will receive an unbiased hearing free from outside influence and based only on the facts and the law,” said Sen. Coons. “I’m proud to introduce this bill with my colleagues that will strengthen financial disclosure requirements for federal judges and help bolster confidence in the justice system.” 

“The STOCK Act rightly strengthened disclosure requirements and boosted transparency for elected officials, but federal judges were inexplicably carved out of these tougher rules,” said Sen. Cornyn. “This legislation would subject federal judges to the same disclosure requirements of other federal officials so we can be sure litigants are protected from conflicts of interest and cases are decided fairly.”

“Existing law already requires many federal officials to disclose certain securities transactions. As a matter of transparency and accountability, federal judges should do the same. The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act would give the public, including litigants, access to this important information while protecting judges’ personal information and security,” said Sen. Kennedy.

“Our judicial officials should be bound by the same financial disclosure requirements that our elected officials are. This level of increased transparency will hold officials accountable and ensure that litigants are not caught in a conflict of interest,” said Sen. Durbin. “Today's introduction of the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act brings us one step closer to guaranteeing equal justice under the law.”

“By making judicial financial disclosures more easily available, this bill will help increase transparency and reassure the American people that the federal judicial system remains unbiased and fair,” Sen. Grassley said. 

“Life-tenured judges follow lower transparency standards than any other federal officials,” said Sen. Whitehouse. “This bipartisan bill will make sure the judiciary discloses as much about its stock transactions as the elected branches of government. That’s an important safeguard.” 

“Texans and the American people deserve accountability and ethical integrity from every branch of government. Our judges have a duty to avoid conflicts of interest in their courtrooms and even the appearance of improprieties that could call into question their impartiality. Recent reporting that federal judges across the country have failed to recuse themselves from cases in which they have a financial interest is extremely concerning and undermines faith in our judicial system. That's why I’m proud to co-sponsor this bill that will increase accountability by requiring federal judges to make necessary financial disclosures,” said Sen. Cruz.

“I’m working with my colleagues to strengthen transparency rules to ensure all Americans receive fair and impartial treatment in court without fear of any conflict of interest,” said Sen. Ossoff. 

Background: 

The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act would require that federal judges’ financial disclosure reports be made publicly available online, and require federal judges to submit periodic transaction reports of securities transactions in line with other federal officials under the STOCK Act. The bill would amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to: 

  • Require the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to create a searchable online database of judicial financial disclosure forms and post those forms within 90 days of being filed, and 
  • Subject federal judges to the STOCK Act’s requirement of filing periodic transaction reports within 45 days of securities transactions over $1,000. 

Importantly, the bill also preserves the existing ability of judges to request redactions of personal information on financial disclosure reports due to a security concern. 

Under current ethics guidelines and federal law, federal judges are prohibited from hearing cases that involve a party in which they, their spouse, or their minor children have a financial interest. Federal judges are instead supposed to disqualify themselves in any proceeding in which their impartiality may be questioned. Despite this, a recent report from the Wall Street Journal found that between 2010 and 2018, more than 130 federal judges failed to recuse themselves in nearly 700 cases in which they or an immediate family member held stock in a company involved in the case. 

While federal judges are required to submit financial disclosure reports, current law does not provide sufficient transparency or certainty for litigants to discern if the judge has a conflict of interest. The current process for obtaining judicial financial disclosure forms can be cumbersome and take months or even years. By contrast, financial disclosure reports for the President, Members of Congress, and Presidential-appointed and Senate-confirmed officials are readily-available online.  

Litigants need real-time access to judges’ financial disclosures and securities transactions in order to preserve the integrity of the proceedings and ensure a recusal when there’s a potential conflict of interest in their case. The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act would enact necessary updates to disclosure rules and provide litigants and the public with greater confidence in the judicial system. 

 

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