APBnews Takes Courts to Court over Financial-Disclosure Request: Web Site Seeks Public Records on Federal Judges

Article excerpt

APBnews.com doesn't see any difference between paper and pixels when it comes to public access to court documents.

After a federal judiciary panel closed the book on releasing the financial-disclosure forms of 1,600 active or semiretired federal judges to APBnews.com, the Web site filed a lawsuit Dec. 22 against the panel, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, and the U.S. Marshal's Service.

"In effect, what the court has done is said that it's legal to put these documents on television, it's legal to put them in newspapers, but it is illegal to put them on the Internet," said Mark Sauter, chief operating officer of APB Online Inc., parent of the Web site based in New York.

APBnews.com planned to publish the documents - listing judges' gifts, free travel, loans, and assets, but not their addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, or birth dates - on its Web site in a searchable database.

But, citing a 1998 amendment to the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which allows judicial discretion in matters of security, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch of Florida blocked the release of 12,580 documents that the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts was preparing for APBnews .com early last month and placed a moratorium on all other requests.

A 15-member judiciary panel subsequently ruled Dec. 14 that the publication of the annual financial forms on the Internet jeopardized the safety of the judges and denied APBnews.com's request, but rescinded the moratorium on further requests.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the federal courts, told APBnews.com that the records should be released. He said he may hold hearings on the matter.

Routinely requested by attorneys and media outlets, the records are financial statements for federal judges and their family members, and have been considered public information since 1979. …


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