WASHINGTON – If you're looking for a senator's most recent report on personal finances, you can walk into an office in the Capitol complex, sit down at a computer and print out the report in a matter of minutes.
You can look up a House member's report on any computer connected to the Internet.
But if you want to see a federal judge's disclosure, be prepared to wait.
EDITOR'S NOTE — An occasional look at how Washington works — or doesn't.
It can take two weeks to get a report, and it may be partially censored before its release. The reports are not available on the judiciary's recently upgraded website, though you can read why judges think they are underpaid.
While reviewing reports intended for public examination can be as simple as the click of a computer mouse these days, federal judges refuse to make it easy for the public to see annual reports on their investments, affiliations and paid travel — reports that could signal potential conflicts of interest in pending lawsuits.
What's more, the judges are told each time someone requests a copy.
"There's a disincentive on part of litigants and other interested parties to ask for a particular judge's financial disclosure form," said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative public interest group Judicial Watch. "Whether or not they would be retaliated against I don't know, but people get nervous."
The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, the central repository for judges' disclosure forms, routinely imposes a delay of about 10 days before turning over a requested form so the judge can be notified and review the form.
By contrast, at the Office of Government Ethics, the central location of the forms of executive branch officials, requests made in writing can be filled the same day if made early enough, otherwise the next day. There is no prerelease notification to the executive branch official.
Alone among federal offices, the House of Representatives allows people to obtain financial disclosure reports online.
Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the judiciary, said the notification of judges and review of reports is done solely for the safety of judges and their families. Reviews have allowed court officers to black out information that could reveal where a spouse works, for instance, Carelli said.
In 2008, for example, reports for 120 judges were edited to remove some information before their release, according to an annual report the judges send Congress.
Yet the system can delay the release of a report when a timely disclosure could affect an ongoing case and where no safety concerns are present.
The judge who overturned the Obama administration's moratorium on deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil spill took part in the case even though he owned up to $15,000 in Exxon Mobil stock and the company had one of the 33 existing exploratory rigs shut down by the drilling ban.
But the public did not know that U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman owned Exxon Mobil stock because his report was not available. After his ruling, Feldman revealed that he owned the stock but sold it prior to issuing his decision.
Feldman said he didn't learn he owned the stock until June 21, the same day he heard arguments from energy companies challenging the moratorium and the administration.
Under the filing deadlines, his report should have been available.
Federal law requires judges to disqualify themselves from hearing cases involving a company in which they have a financial interest. More broadly, the law says a judge should step aside from a matter "in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned."
Computer software maintained by the federal judiciary is supposed to signal when a judge owns stock in a company that is a party to a lawsuit. Exxon Mobil was not a party to the lawsuit that Feldman heard.
Judicial Watch spends a couple of thousand dollars a year for a mountain of paper about federal judges' financial holdings. The reports are supposed to be available for public inspection by mid-June, but it typically takes the group around three months to compile, scan and post the reports on their website, where they may be read free of charge.
Judges will be able to file their reports electronically beginning next year, but they have not taken any steps to make the material available in the same fashion, rather than on paper.
House records: http://tinyurl.com/ybezy7j