The judge who attempted to overturn the Obama administration's moratorium on deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following this summer's BP oil spill owned up to $15,000 in Exxon Mobil stock and that company had one of the 33 existing exploratory rigs shut down by the drilling ban.
But the public did not know U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman owned Exxon Mobil stock because his financial disclosure report -- though required by law -- was not available. After his ruling, Judge Feldman revealed that he owned the stock but sold it prior to issuing his decision. He 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.
Why wasn't the information about the potential conflict available to the public?
"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," The Associated Press reported this week. "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."
It can take two weeks to get a judge's financial disclosure report, and the judge himself will be invited to partially censor it before it reaches you. 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, the AP reports. That creates "a disincentive on part of litigants and other interested parties to ask for a particular judge's financial disclosure form," explains Tom Fitton, president of the conservative public interest group Judicial Watch. 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.
Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the judiciary, contends 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, Mr. Carelli said.
These delays are excessive. Once the documents necessary to reveal potential conflicts of interest are compiled, they should be readily available to any member of the public -- without fear that the judge will be provided with the names of parties uppity enough to inquire.
The timeliness of information enhances its value. If un-elected administrators can impose an arbitrary 10-day waiting period, what's to stop them from deciding 30 days or three years might be even better?