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Federal Judges Blink Under APB's Net Sunshine
Crime and Online Journalism
The New Crime Boss
Federal Judges Blink Under APB's Net Sunshine
Print Legend Sydney Schanberg Online
 

APB News’ strategy of posting gigantic databases of judicial system information online provoked a reaction of national significance Dec. 6, when a federal judge blocked the Web site from publishing the publicly available financial disclosure records of 1,600 federal judges on the Internet.

Florida federal District Judge William Zloch, chair of the Federal Judiciary's Committee on Financial Disclosure, issued a temporary block on APB's 12,580-page package of photocopied disclosure statements, citing concerns for judges' safety. His 15-member committee met privately for at least five hours on Dec. 10, and is expected to issue a definitive ruling as early as this week.

APB Chief Operating Officer and co-founder Mark Sauter said that he will sue if the ruling is not satisfactory.

"This is one of the most fundamental tests yet of the government's acceptance of the Internet as a legitimate and enduring news medium," Sauter said.

Zloch's decision, and the committee deliberations, seem in part to be based on terror of the Internet.

"There are some very real fears," said Karen Redmond, an employee at the U.S. Courts Administration Office who serves as a spokesperson for Zloch, in a Dec. 8 Washington Post article. "You can find out where a judge is teaching; you can find out where his wife works."

"There're problems. There're just a lot of problems," federal District Judge Joseph Hood, also a committee member, told APB. "What happens when it gets out on the Internet?"

The disclosures, required of federal judges annually for the last 20 years, do not include personal details like addresses or phone numbers. Similar records of members of Congress and the executive branch are widely available on the Internet.

"These financial documents clearly do not contain personally identifying information. Therefore, no judge should be alarmed over the potential for 'retaliation' by a criminal defendant," wrote Society of Professional Journalists President Kyle Elyse Niederpruem in a letter protesting the decision. "If the disclosure is provided to make sure no judge has a conflict of interest in presiding over a case, you are barring anyone from making that kind of determination."

Zloch refuses to speak to reporters, telling APB through an assistant: "Judge Zloch asked me to call you and thank you very much and to tell you that he has not granted a formal interview since the 1965 Notre Dame-Miami game."

The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 requires all federal judges to report all gifts received, free travel, assets and loans for themselves and their immediate families each May 15, and for that information to be made public immediately. Last year, Congress amended the Act to give judges the right to withhold some information from the public for legitimate security reasons, as determined by the U.S. Marshals Service.

In recent years, several news organizations have discovered irregularities by sifting through the public documents. In 1995, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune found that 16 percent of the 222 disclosure statements it reviewed were "incomplete or inaccurate." In 1998, the Kansas City Star discovered that federal judges from the Kansas City area alone had issued more than 200 court orders while holding an interest in a litigant. And earlier this year, the non-profit Community Rights Counsel revealed that eight federal appellate judges in 1997 ruled on 17 cases "in which they had a disqualifying conflict of interest."