President Biden signed the bipartisan Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act into law (P.L. 117-125) in May 2022. The new law requires that all judicial financial disclosures be "full-text searchable, sortable, and downloadable format for access by the public." The law aims to make court financial data open and accessible to the public, enhancing transparency and accountability in the Judicial branch of the federal government.
Federal judges are required to recuse themselves from cases where there may be a financial conflict of interest, including if family members have a financial interest in a case. However, the current oversight process to ensure judges are taking the necessary steps to be impartial is lengthy and complicated.
Currently, federal judges are subject to publicly reporting securities transactions – such as the purchase or sale of stocks, bonds, commodities futures, and other forms of securities – however, these reports have only a six-year lifespan before they can be destroyed and are difficult for the public to access. Even if an interested party requested and collected judicial disclosure reports, they may not be useful if the data are not searchable.
The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act, first introduced in the 117th Congress in October 2021 by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), lays out two main provisions to address the current oversight system. First, federal judicial officials must file a report for securities transactions over $1,000 within 45 days, in line with requirements for top officials in the Executive and Legislative branches of government, including the President, Members of Congress, and President- and Senate-appointed officials. Second, the U.S. Office of the Courts must make these disclosures publicly available on a searchable internet database no more than 90 days after the report is filed.
The establishment and maintenance of a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format database is key to removing the unnecessary limitations to accessibility of statutorily-mandated financial disclosures, facilitating a collection of data that are useful and timely. By having this data more easily accessible and available for oversight, the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act can help strengthen public confidence in the integrity of the federal judicial system and improve overall trust in the government as a whole.
The Data Coalition Initiative advocates for policies that ensure government data are high-quality, accessible, and usable, and we applaud all those who have been working to advance the The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act. This is another important step toward all branches of the federal government utilizing data that can ensure they operate in a transparent and effective manner.
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