The federal judiciary in general lacks transparency when it comes to financial disclosures and ensuring that judges are following the rules.

WASHINGTON — For the past several years, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono has been pushing for more oversight of federal judges, particularly those serving lifetime appointments on the U.S. Supreme Court.

A recent investigative report from ProPublica about a billionaire GOP donor paying for nearly 20 years of luxury travel for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — including far-flung trips to Indonesia, flights on private jets and first-class service on a superyacht — has only added fuel to the Hawaii senator’s campaign.

Thomas never reported any of the special accommodations on any of his financial disclosure forms, which some legal experts argued could be a violation of law.

Thomas himself has defended the non-disclosure, even though the value of some of the gifts and travel exceeded $500,000.

Senator Mazie Hirono speaks to media at the NEX food court after a tour of the Red Hill fuel facility. The tour was closed to the media.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono is demanding more accountability and transparency from the Supreme Court. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“It’s astounding,” Hirono said last week in an interview. “It’s totally unacceptable that this kind of wining and dining to the tune of millions of dollars is not disclosed.”

Hirono is one of several Democrats who have called on Chief Justice John Roberts to investigate Thomas’ travel and whether it crossed any legal or ethical boundaries.

On April 10, Hirono joined 10 of her colleagues on the Judiciary Committee in a follow-up letter saying they would hold a hearing in the coming days to address “the need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards.”

The letter criticized Roberts for refusing to adopt a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices that’s similar to the one followed by lower court judges despite well-documented concerns about justices being subjected to undue influence from outside interests.

According to the senators, Thomas’ alleged transgressions have only added to the worry.

“Now the Court faces a crisis of public confidence in its ethical standards that must be addressed,” the senators wrote.

If the court does not take action, they said, then it will be up to lawmakers to pursue legislation to force the high court to adhere to higher ethical standards.

“There’s a culture of opacity and a culture of non-disclosure that permeates the entire federal judiciary.”

Gabe Roth, Fix the Court executive director

Hirono has co-sponsored a number of bills in recent years to address judicial oversight by creating a formal process for investigating Supreme Court misconduct, addressing conflicts of interest and tightening the rules around gift and travel disclosures.

But she said she doesn’t expect any of that legislation to make it very far given GOP pushback.

“Let’s point the finger where the finger needs to be pointed,” Hirono said. “I don’t think we’ll get enough Republicans to go along with the bill that I’ve already signed onto to require the Supreme Court to have a code of ethics.”

For that reason, she said it will be critical for the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, to press forward with public hearings.

“Shining a light on this issue is very important,” Hirono said. “Half the battle is alerting the public to what’s going on.”

In general, there’s been a lack of oversight of the federal judiciary as a whole.

Federal Building and US Courthouse.
Recent financial disclosures for Hawaii judges are hard to come by despite a new law saying the information should be readily available. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Last year, however, Congress worked on a bipartisan basis to pass legislation to improve accountability in the lower courts when it approved the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act. That was in response to a Wall Street Journal investigation finding that 131 federal judges broke the law by presiding over lawsuits that involved companies in which they owned stocks.

The bill, which was signed by President Joe Biden in May, required the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to create an online searchable database of annual financial disclosure forms filed by all federal judges. It also forced judges to comply with the STOCK Act, which bans members of Congress from insider trading and requires periodic disclosures of securities transactions worth more than $1,000.

But compliance with the new legislation has been sporadic.

According to Fix the Court, a nonprofit watchdog of the federal judiciary, as of February more than 60% of judges’ annual financial disclosure statements were missing from the database, which first went online in November.

In Hawaii, a Civil Beat review of the new database found that the annual disclosures for only two of 10 district court judges — Jill Otake and Rom Trader — were available online.

The financial disclosures for judges Richard Clifton and Mark Bennett, who are both assigned to the 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals, were also available in the database.

None of the judges reported receiving any gifts in 2021, although Bennett did report he was reimbursed for transportation, meals and his hotel for speaking at the Annual Conference of Western Attorneys General at the Grand Wailea on Maui.

While other groups, such as the Free Law Project, have their own repositories of judicial financial disclosures, Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, says the judiciary needs to do a better job of policing itself and making information more accessible to the public.

He said there are no limits on gifts or travel reimbursements for judges, and the disclosure of such items is up to the individuals since there’s no public entity to verify the accuracy of what they’re reporting.

The fact that certain Supreme Court justices appear to be following their own rules with even less oversight, he said, only adds to the need for more accountability.

“There’s a culture of opacity and a culture of non-disclosure that permeates the entire federal judiciary,” Roth said. “We just need to start treating judges like politicians and expecting them to follow all the same types of travel disclosure, gift disclosure and outside income rules that members of Congress and top officials in the executive branch have to follow.”

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