Dec. 15, 2016: This story has been updated because the bill was signed into law.
It took an actual act of Congress to steer local judges in Washington, D.C., toward broader disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.
The U.S. Senate passed a bill Tuesday that mandates increased transparency in the District of Columbia’s court system in response to a 2013 Center for Public Integrity investigation that gave the city a failing grade. The House approved the measure in September.
The legislation’s passage was a rarity in the deeply divided Congress and a welcome victory for the city’s non-voting representative to Congress, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who cited the Center’s probe in pushing for changes.
“The public deserves to have complete and appropriate information on the finances of judges charged with upholding justice in our city,” the Democrat said in a statement Wednesday.
The White House did not immediately respond to inquiries on whether President Barack Obama will sign the District of Columbia Judicial Financial Transparency Act before he leaves office, but Norton and one of the Senate sponsors, Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, were optimistic.
(Update, Dec. 15, 4:19 p.m. Obama signed the bill into law on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
“We are pleased the President has signed into law our bill to bring much-needed financial disclosure and other improvements to the D.C. courts,” Norton said in a statement. “Getting a bill through Congress, no matter how uncontroversial, is immensely difficult. I thank my colleagues in Senate for working with me and turning this important bill into statute.”)
The measure calls for making the annual financial disclosures of D.C. court judges similar to those already required for federal judges — and making those reports available to the public. While D.C. Court judges’ paychecks come from the federal government, the judges have not been held to the same standard as federal judges when it comes to publicly disclosing their financial affairs.
The measure also includes several other provisions intended to improve the D.C. court system, including allowing the courts to accept credit card payments.
The push for the bill came because the Center for Public Integrity gave the District an “F” for its poor judicial disclosure and ranked it tied for 47th among state high courts nationwide in its 2013 Justice Obscured project.
The only states that scored worse — Montana, Idaho and Utah — did not require judges to publicly file annual reports at all. (In light of the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation, however, Montana’s Supreme Court has since ordered judges to file the same financial disclosures as other statewide officials.)
Such annual disclosure reports typically show judges’ income, investments, debts and the gifts they’ve received. But in D.C., only two of the disclosure form’s 10 sections — “Business and Charitable Affiliations” and “Honorarium” — have been open for public inspection.
That makes it difficult for the public to have confidence that judges’ personal financial interests are not affecting their caseloads.
To change the rules, the legislation had to go through Congress, rather than the District’s City Council, because of the peculiar relationship the city has with the federal government as the nation’s capital, creating stiff odds for the decidedly local issue.
Still, the measure won bipartisan support in a Congress that has rarely been able to agree on much. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Georgia, had called on his colleagues to support what he called the “good government bill” when it came before the House.
“This increased disclosure will help to strengthen an important pillar of our judicial system: the public’s trust in an impartial judicial system,” he said at the time.
The D.C. Open Government Coalition, which pushed for such reforms since 2014, welcomed the news of the bill’s passage and expressed thanks for Norton’s leadership.
“It will correct a gap in D.C. government transparency we have been concerned about for years,” said Fritz Mulhauser, who co-chairs the coalition’s legal committee.
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