The U.S. federal judiciary today backed off its plans to bar
public records from news site APBnews.com, marking a First Amendment victory
for online publications.
The decision caps a three-month standoff between APB executives and some of
the nation's most powerful judges over whether financial disclosure records
should be posted on the Web.
A six-page letter last month from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William
Rehnquist, denouncing the move to block public records, may have encouraged
the judiciary committee to rethink its plans.
"This is a significant victory," said Mark Sauter, APB's chief operating
officer. "This case will now make these important government servants more
accountable to the public. Many civil libertarians and many plain old
citizens who have to appear before the judges should be excited about this
Despite the win, APB is not withdrawing its lawsuit against the judges
citing other questionable practices such as forcing news organizations to pay
for public documents.
In the meantime, the newsroom staff is ready to scan onto
their Web site more than 12,500 pages of financial disclosure records for
every active and semiretired federal judge.
The judges had been apprehensive about releasing the information, noting
that the Internet's far-reaching readership may present security risks.
Courts in general have been slow to embrace the Net, but many public records,
such as federal court cases, lists of sexual offenders and, in some
counties, divorce records and other civil law matters, can be easily found
APB's troubles with the judiciary began in October when the newsgroup asked
for financial disclosure records of 1,600 active and semiretired federal
judges and magistrates.
The request was denied even though similar documents had been released to
print news reporters who had done investigative reports about judges who
had ruled on cases involving companies in which they owned stock, presenting an apparent conflict of interest.
APB then sued, charging First Amendment violations.
The move toward making public records more accessible may have begun in
1996, when President Clinton signed the Electronic Freedom of Information
Act. Under the act, federal records must be available to the masses once it
In his letter, Justice Rehnquist told the Financial Disclosure Committee
it did not have the authority to block APB's request for documents.
"There are a large number of judges who feel strongly about security issues
raised by financial disclosure," he wrote. "But I also note that although
Judicial Conference Committees fulfill a number of roles for the conference,
they generally are not rule-making or policy-making bodies."
While acknowledging that the public records statute allows for judges to
edit information from disclosure forms because of security risks, Rehnquist
noted that it was not an excuse to withhold the reports entirely.
"It is to be expected that closer public scrutiny will be applied when
judges decide issues affecting judges," he said. "We have already seen
evidence of this in editorial commentary, and I suspect it will increase.
Moreover, the fact that officials from the Executive and Legislative
branches must also file disclosure reports makes the committee's position
more difficult to defend."
Those words were taken to heart when the Administrative Office of the U.S.
Courts met this week to review, among other items, the APB request.
APB executives were excited today upon discovering they were the subject of such an important memo.
"It's ironic for us to think that only 18 months ago we were sitting in
our living room putting together this new company and now to see that the
chief justice is mentioning us in a memo," Sauter said. "Maybe this says
something about how important the Internet really is."