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Congress poised to subject U.S. judges to more financial disclosure

The House of Representatives is set to vote on legislation already passed by the Senate that would make it easier for the public to see if a member of the federal judiciary has a financial conflict of interest that would warrant being recused from hearing a case.

U.S. Supreme Court
Visitors stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Feb. 27, 2018.
Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg
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A bipartisan bill that would subject U.S. Supreme Court justices and federal judges to tougher disclosure requirements for their financial holdings and stock trades is expected to win final congressional approval on Wednesday.

The House of Representatives is set to vote on legislation already passed by the Senate that would make it easier for the public to see if a member of the federal judiciary has a financial conflict of interest that would warrant being recused from hearing a case.

The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act, approved by the Senate in February, is expected to pass in the House. The Democratic-led chamber in December approved a version of the bill with slight differences on a 422-4 vote in a rare show of bipartisanship. After House passage, it would go to President Joe Biden for his signature.

Lawmakers introduced the legislation in October soon 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 from North Carolina who sponsored the House's version, told Reuters. "The judiciary should be subject to the same requirements as the legislative and executive branches."

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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 in February said she expected a proposal to address that concern "pretty soon."

The legislation going before the House on Wednesday comes 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.

The bill covers the nine Supreme Court justices as well as federal appellate, district court, bankruptcy and magistrate judges. 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."

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Will Dunham and Alexia Garamfalvi.)

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