Cornyn, Coons Bill to Enhance Judicial Ethics and Transparency Requirements Passes House


In: All News   Posted 12/01/2021
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Today the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act, legislation from Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Chris Coons (D-DE) to require online publication of financial disclosure reports for federal judges and mandate that federal judges submit periodic transaction reports for certain securities transactions.

“Federal judges were wrongly excluded from the disclosure requirements put in place by the STOCK Act, which helps bolster public trust in our institutions,” said Sen. Cornyn. “I applaud my colleagues in the House for moving my legislation, which would help prevent conflicts of interest and ensure federal judges are subject to the same level of transparency as other officials.”

“Every litigant deserves to have confidence that they will receive a fair hearing with an unbiased judge when they get their day in court,” said Sen. Coons. “I commend the House of Representatives for overwhelmingly passing this necessary legislation, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to pass our bill and put it on the President’s desk.”

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, which was introduced in the Senate last October, 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.