Legislation that would subject U.S. Supreme Court justices and federal judges to tougher disclosure requirements for their financial holdings and stock trades passed the House of Representatives in a rare show of bipartisanship on Wednesday.
The bill, approved on a voice vote after winning Senate passage in February, would make it easier for the public to see if a member of the federal judiciary has a financial conflict of interest warranting recusal from hearing a case.
The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act now goes to President Joe Biden to sign into law.
Lawmakers introduced the legislation in October after the Wall Street Journal reported that more than 130 federal judges had failed to recuse themselves from cases involving companies in which they or their family members owned stock.
“This is simply unacceptable,” Representative Deborah Ross, a Democrat who sponsored the House’s version, told Reuters ahead of the vote. “The judiciary should be subject to the same requirements as the legislative and executive branches.”
The House previously approved a version of the bill with slight differences in December on a 422-4 vote.
“One of the bedrocks of American democracy is our independent judiciary,” Republican Senator John Cornyn, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said after its House passage. “This legislation will help bring potential conflicts of interest to light and bolster public trust in our judicial system, and I’m glad it is on its way to the president’s desk.”
The bill covers the nine Supreme Court justices as well as federal appellate, district court, bankruptcy and magistrate judges.
Congress also faces public pressure to impose controls on financial transactions by its own members, including possibly banning them from buying and selling stocks, though that effort is not very far along. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been the subject of conflict of interest concerns herself, in February said she expected a proposal to address that concern “pretty soon.”
The legislation was passed despite efforts by the judiciary to police itself following the Journal’s report by bolstering ethics training and adopting a new system to process disclosure reports, steps some lawmakers have called inadequate.
The bill calls for making federal judges follow similar disclosure requirements as lawmakers by establishing a 45-day window for judges to report stock trades of more than $1,000.
Under the legislation, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the judiciary’s administrative arm, must also create a searchable and publicly accessible online database of judicial financial disclosure forms posted within 90 days of being filed.
David Sellers, a spokesperson for the office, said in a statement that the judiciary has already taken a number of steps to strengthen its conflict screening policies and is “prepared to add features to our public release system to address other aspects of this bill.”
It calls for the database to be online within 180 days of enactment, though the judiciary can obtain deadline extensions.
While judges currently file annual financial disclosure reports, requests by litigants or members of the public to review them are sent to judges themselves to decide if anything needs to be redacted and can take months or longer to fulfill.
U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, the judiciary’s senior-most member, in a year-end report in December called the recusal lapses the Journal identified “isolated” and “unintentional” incidents, but said the judiciary took the concerns “seriously.”
Copyright 2022 Thomson/Reuters