THE BLOG
10/22/2014 05:13 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Supreme Court Should Be More Transparent With Financial Disclosures

Gary Blakeley via Getty Images

As a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts famously wrote about the peculiarity that, in America, "only Supreme Court justices and schoolchildren take the entire summer off."

When their annual vacation ended last month, the nine justices -- including the Chief -- returned from three months of travel and teaching, often in exotic locations and with little ethical oversight. While everyone is entitled to a little vacation now and then, America's top legal officers should adhere to basic measures to increase accountability and restore the public's trust in government.

Any time a member of Congress wants to travel abroad -- which we do from time to time as part of our official duties -- we are required to check with the House Committee on Ethics as to whether the trip follows the ethics rules by which federally elected officials are bound.

Not so with Supreme Court justices. When they travel the globe to lecture or meet with foreign judges or visit their properties from Ireland to the West Indies, there is no similarly situated authority that guides the justices on the ethical implications of their travel and outside income from teaching and lecturing.

What's more, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which performs managerial functions for the judicial branch and is overseen by Chief Justice Roberts, makes the press and public jump through unnecessary hoops to obtain legally required financial disclosure reports. Each year members of Congress, high-ranking Executive Branch officials and Supreme Court justices must disclose their and their spouses' personal financial interests in order to identify and prevent conflicts of interest as they perform the people's work.

That the justices release these reports to the public solely by paper -- not to mention much later than the other branches and full of inconsistencies -- does not comport with expectations of transparency from government officials in 2014.

As chair of the Congressional Transparency Caucus, I urge the justices and their colleagues in the federal judiciary to take a few steps to improve the process. Issues of transparency like these do not require any additional laws, are non-partisan and enjoy broad support from the American people, who in poll after poll say they support various measures to increase transparency at the nation's highest court.

First, the Judicial Conference of the United States -- the principal policymaking arm of the U.S. Courts that's also led by Chief Justice Roberts -- should take the initiative to put the disclosure reports online. Its Committee on Financial Disclosures could easily post them on the U.S. Courts website, saving journalists and interested citizens the headache of having to fax or mail in their requests, prepare a check (they charge $0.20 per page) and then visit the U.S. Courts office to pick them up.

Second, the Judicial Conference should consider working with the justices and their staffs to encourage uniformity. Based on this year's disclosure reports, viewable at www.Scribd.com/OpenSCOTUS, we get the sense that each justice filled out his or her form in private without input or involvement of any other justice. How else would we have a situation in which Justice Kennedy lists no money in the stock market while Justice Alito spends 10 pages detailing every three-figure dividend he received from owning common stock? These reports should all contain the same basic financial and travel information in order to prevent conflicts of interest and give the public a more complete picture of the justices' lives beyond the courtroom.

Third, the Court should work to improve disclosure timing. While all public officials are required by the Ethics in Government Act to submit financial disclosure reports by May 15, the justices this year took until June 20 -- more than five weeks later -- to release them to the public. There just isn't that much information to redact. If members of Congress, the president and vice president can release their reports just a few days after the submission deadline, there's no reason the justices should delay. Cynics have said that the justices purposely wait until the end of the term to release the reports so the most important decisions of the year, often announced in June, would overshadow the release.

In the end, the public has the right to know about any undertakings top public officials engage in that may influence how they conduct the people's business. Next year, I would encourage the Supreme Court to file their annual financial disclosure reports in a more open, consistent and timely manner.