D.C. Delegate Norton To Propose End to Secrecy of D.C. Judges’ Financial Disclosure Forms

UPDATE - 7/18/16: The legislation was introduced February 1 as H.R. 4419.  Text as introduced is here. The Center for Public Integrity reported on the development also. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reported the bill July 12. That means it is pending before the full House. The bill may or may not be acted upon in this session that ends December 16. The House is in recess until September 6 when it returns for four weeks, adjourning again September 30 for the elections, returning November 14.

In a surprise announcement, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Homes Norton (D) said Tuesday (19) she plans to introduce legislation that would open to the public for the first time in years the financial disclosure forms completed by D.C. judges.  

Her legislative proposal will ask Congress to change requirements now in federal law that require the information on lengthy forms but also keep the details closely held.

This scheme drew a failing grade in a nationwide review of state high court judges’ financial disclosure by the Center for Public Integrity in December 2013.

The Center acknowledged D.C. “has fairly extensive financial disclosure requirements compared with most states. Judges must disclose income they receive outside their judicial salaries, as well as investments and gifts, on their annual financial disclosure forms.”

But, added Center reporters, “Most of what the District’s judges report is concealed from the public. In fact, only two of the disclosure form’s 10 sections — “Business and Charitable Affiliations” and “Honorarium” — are open for public inspection. The rest is kept confidential and only reviewed internally by the District of Columbia Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, an agency in charge of disciplining judges. As a result, D.C. tied for the lowest score out of the states that require some kind of financial disclosure from their top justices.”

The bill text was not made available but in a statement Norton explained that when introduced, the “District of Columbia Judicial Financial Transparency Act of 2016” will make local judges' disclosure requirements “similar to the disclosure requirements already in place for Article III federal judges” and bring “some much-needed transparency to the D.C. Courts by making all of this information [already on the disclosure forms]—except for a judge’s personally identifiable information—available for public inspection.”

Norton noted “this legislation is particularly necessary because open government advocates have found the D.C. Courts to be seriously lacking in transparency.”

The D.C. Open Government Coalition began discussions with community groups, judges and Commission members in 2014 to urge changes to improve the situation noted in the Center for Public Integrity evaluation. The Coalition joins Delegate Norton in her conclusion that “only Congress can make these necessary changes” and her encouragement to congressional colleagues “to support this good government bill, to improve transparency for judges in the District of Columbia.”