Federal Judiciary:

Assessing and Formally Documenting Financial Disclosure Procedures Could Help Ensure Balance between Judges' Safety and Timely Public Access

GAO-04-696NI: Published: Jun 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2004.

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The Ethics in Government Act requires judges and other federal officials to file financial disclosure reports as a check on conflicts of interest. However, given potential security risks to federal judges, Congress authorized redactions of information that could endanger them. This redaction authority is set to expire at the end of 2005. To assist in deliberations about whether to extend the authority, this report discusses (1) the number of redaction requests filed and the proportion granted, (2) the basis for the decisions regarding redactions requested during 1999 through 2002, (3) the judiciary's procedures for safeguarding information without unduly compromising public access, and (4) the release of reports for selected legislative and executive branch officials.

During calendar years 1999 through 2002, the most recent years for which complete data were available when we began our review, federal judges submitted 661 requests for redaction of information in their financial disclosure reports. Less than 10 percent of the more than 2,000 federal judges who annually filed reports during these 4 years requested any type of redaction. During these 4 years, the judiciary granted in whole or in part, 592 (or about 90 percent) of the 661 redaction requests processed. Responding to the need for public disclosure and to address concerns about judges' security, the judiciary has developed guiding principles for the implementation of its redaction authority--to grant redactions that would reveal the unsecured locations of judges and members of their families or where there is a clear nexus between the redactions requested and specific security threats. Our review of the redaction requests processed during 1999 through 2002 confirms that the judiciary has generally applied these principles consistently. The judiciary's procedures for processing redactions to and public requests for financial disclosure reports have not been formally documented and have not been assessed with respect to their ability to provide reasonable assurance that the judiciary can safeguard sensitive information and provide timely responses to public requests for copies of reports. For example, deadlines for judges to request redactions and for the United States Marshals Service (USMS) to respond to requests for security consultations are unclear and not formally documented. Assessment and documentation of the procedures could provide greater assurance that the judiciary consistently applies practices designed to safeguard information. For example, the Chief of the Staff of the Judicial Conference's Committee on Financial Disclosure told us that he sometimes contacts judges who do not request redactions but whose USMS consultations show that they face specific security threats. However this practice has not been documented as a routine part of the process. Assessing and documenting procedures could also aid the committee in identifying opportunities to reduce the time required to respond to requesters. In 2002, members of the public who requested copies of reports waited a median of 73 days before the committee mailed the reports, and requesters we spoke with expressed frustration at the amount of time it took to receive reports. The judiciary could alleviate requesters' frustration with the time required to implement the redaction provision by providing the requesters information about what the redaction process involves and the time required to obtain copies of judges' reports. Finally, our review also revealed that USMS has not responded to all requests for security consultations as provided for by the Ethics in Government Act. The legislative and executive branches do not have redaction authority, but must make financial disclosure reports filed with their offices available to the public. Officials from these branches said they can satisfy most requests for reports within a few days. These officials did not express concern about the public availability of financial disclosure reports, because they are unable to link threats their filers may face to the specific information required in reports.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: So that the Judicial Conference can provide reasonable assurance that it is implementing its redaction authority in a manner that provides the safety measures intended without unduly compromising timely public access, it should determine, fully document, and follow formal procedures for processing public requests for reports and redaction requests, including establishing target times for each step in the process.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Judicial Conference Committee of the United States has now set a response time of 10 (rather than 14) days for judges to respond to notifications of requests for release of their reports, and it is now providing those notifications by fax or e-mail except with respect to "omnibus" requests (e.g., those seeking copies of all judges' reports for a given year or years). It has also established expedited review procedures to reduce the time needed to respond to release and redaction requests. In addition, the U.S. Marshalls Service (USMS) changed its policy for responding to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) requests for information regarding the security of Federal Judges prior to publication of the report. As of April 2004, the USMS no longer made specific recommendations on the redaction of the information contained in judicial financial disclosure reports and updated its form letters used for this process to reflect this change. Under the updated process, the USMS provided information on security environments, but the AOUSC, exclusively, determined whether a judicial financial disclosure report should be released and made any and all necessary redactions from the report.

    Recommendation: So that the Judicial Conference can provide reasonable assurance that it is implementing its redaction authority in a manner that provides the safety measures intended without unduly compromising timely public access, it should assess the current practices and procedures for processing redaction requests and public requests for disclosure reports with the goal of managing requester expectations and providing requested reports as expeditiously as possible.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Judicial Conference Committee of the United States has now set a response time of 10 (rather than 14) days for judges to respond to notifications of requests for release of their reports, and it is now providing those notifications by fax or e-mail except with respect to "omnibus" requests (e.g., those seeking copies of all judges' reports for a given year or years). It has also established expedited review procedures to reduce the time needed to respond to release and redaction requests. In addition, the U.S. Marshalls Service (USMS) changed its policy for responding to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) requests for information regarding the security of Federal Judges prior to publication of the report. As of April 2004, the USMS no longer made specific recommendations on the redaction of the information contained in judicial financial disclosure reports and updated its form letters used for this process to reflect this change. Under the updated process, the USMS provided information on security environments, but the AOUSC, exclusively, determined whether a judicial financial disclosure report should be released and made any and all necessary redactions from the report.

    Recommendation: The Unites States Marshals Service should develop and implement procedures to ensure that it complies with the requirements of the Ethics in Government Act by responding to all consultation requests from the Judicial Conference.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: United States Marshals Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2004, the U.S. Marshalls Service (USMS) implemented several new procedures intended to ensure that the Marshall Service responds to all security consultation requests within the prescribed period.

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