The federal judge who issued a nationwide ruling blocking the approval of a common abortion medication redacted key information on his legally mandated financial disclosures, in what legal experts described as an unusual move that conceals the bulk of his personal fortune.
In his 2020 and 2021 annual disclosures, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk wrote that he held between $5 million and $25 million in “common stock” of a company – a significant majority of the judge’s personal wealth. The name of the company he held in stock is redacted, despite the fact that federal law only allows redactions of information that could “endanger” a judge or their family member.
CNN obtained a previous financial disclosure for Kacsmaryk – which is not available online – from 2017, when he was a judicial nominee.
On that unredacted form, Kacsmaryk reported owning about $2.9 million in stock in the Florida-based supermarket company Publix. It’s not clear whether that’s the same holding as the redacted stock, although Publix’s share price had significantly increased by 2020 and 2021 and the company is no longer listed on his more recent disclosures.
Editorials are approved by a judicial committee. The redacted holding accounted for at least 85% of Kacsmaryk’s total reported wealth in 2021, and potentially more.
“The whole point of a disclosure is to explain where you have conflicts,” said Michael Lissner, the executive director of the Free Law Project, a nonprofit that has published judicial disclosures. “If you have stock and you’re not saying what it’s in and it’s this much of your personal wealth, that’s a conflict you have. The public deserves to know.”
In a statement to CNN, Kacsmaryk said the “Administrative Office of the United States Courts approved the editorial after reviewing the relevant rules and applicable threats.”
“It is a private corporation headquartered and operated outside of Texas, outside the Fifth Circuit. It has never been a party in any case in the Northern District of Texas,” Kacsmaryk wrote of the company he holds stock in. “The Clerk’s Office has the name of the entity, actively screens incoming cases, and I would be automatically accused of any cases involving this entity.”
The editorial is the latest example of Kacsmaryk not being fully transparent as a judge and judicial nominee, even as he has become one of the most controversial judges in the country.
CNN reported Thursday that Kacsmaryk failed to disclose during his Senate confirmation process of two interviews in which he discussed contraception and gay rights. And The Washington Post reported last week that Kacsmaryk removed his name in 2017 from a pending law review article criticizing protections for transgender people and those seeking abortions as he was being nominated.
Kacsmaryk, who worked as a lawyer for a conservative religious freedom advocacy group before joining the bench, was first nominated by former President Donald Trump in 2017 and confirmed in 2019. In recent years, he has become a significant legal thorn in the side of the The Biden administration, issued sweeping rulings and nationwide injunctions on issues like immigration and protections for LGBTQ workers, even before his abortion ruling this month.
In several instances, including the abortion pill case, conservative groups appear to have strategically filed their lawsuits in Kacsmaryk’s Amarillo-area jurisdiction in order to guarantee he hears their cases.
The redacted stock that Kacsmaryk reported on his disclosure form was significantly larger than any other financial holding he disclosed, the largest of which in 2021 were two mutual and index funds that he listed as between $100,001 and $250,000 each.
The stock earned Kacsmaryk between $50,001 and $100,000 in dividend income in 2020 and between $100,001 and $1,000,000 in 2021, the reports state. Federal judges are only required to report financial holdings in ranges, and don’t have to provide exact figures.
According to a note in his 2020 disclosure, the stock was previously held in a trust fund named for Kacsmaryk, which was dissolved in 2020, and Kacsmaryk now holds the stock personally.
Publix stock is not publicly traded, and only Publix employees and members of its board of directors can buy it, according to the company. One possible source of the Publix stock Kacsmaryk reported in 2017 is the judge’s grandmother. According to her obituary, Mary Kacsmaryk “joined the Publix team early in its history and worked 25+ years” and was well-known for “her passion and pride for being a Publix team member.”
Notably, no other judges in Kacsmaryk’s district, the Northern District of Texas, redacted the name of a company they held stock in their most recently available financial disclosures. Lissner, whose organization has published thousands of financial disclosure forms, said that while editorials were not especially uncommon, the size of the holding Kacsmaryk was redacted and the fact that the name of the company was hidden was unusual.
Redactions are approved by a committee of the Judicial Conference, which oversees the federal court system. According to federal statute, disclosures can only be redacted if the committee concludes that “revealing personal and sensitive information could endanger that individual or a family member of that individual.” A report may be redacted “for as long as the danger to such an individual exists.”
The US court system’s Guide to Judiciary Policy lays out more specific reasons for redaction, such as the potential for information in reports to be used for identity theft or reveal a judge’s place of residence. The 2023 copy of the guide states that “it would be unusual for a request for the redaction of the identity of a stock or other security to be granted,” although that statement doesn’t appear in earlier versions of the document.
Virginia Canter, a former government ethics lawyer who now works for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that “it’s of utmost importance to protect the judges and their family members.” Federal judges were the target of thousands of threats in 2022, according to the US Marshals Service, and one federal judge, Esther Salas, was targeted in a 2020 attack that killed her son and left her husband injured.
“If it would reveal where a family member was working, you could make the argument (for redaction), but I think that would be one of the limited circumstances,” Canter said. She added that the argument would be harder to make for common stock in a large company with many locations and employees, such as Publix.
Judges generally submit requests for redaction, although it is possible for the committee to redact information without a judge’s request, the guide states.
In 2020 and 2021, less than 4% of officials are required to file judicial financial disclosures requested redaction, according to reports from the Administrative Office of the US Courts. Almost all redaction requests were granted, and most were approved because the information could reveal “the physical presence of filers or members of their families at unsecured locations,” the reports said.
A spokesperson for the Judicial Conference said she could not comment on any specific financial disclosure report or editorial requests for confidentiality reasons.
Federal law requires judges to recuse themselves from cases in which they have a financial interest – but they haven’t always done so. In 2021, for example, the Wall Street Journal found that 131 federal judges heard cases involving firms in which they or their family members held stock, a violation of the law.
Publix, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, does not appear to have been a party in any case before Kacsmaryk.
In any case, experts say, the judge’s redacted report prevents the transparency that litigants deserve.
“The redaction of his single largest investment in common stock makes it impossible to know if he’s complying with his recusal obligations,” said Steven Lubet, an emeritus professor at Northwestern Law School who studies judicial ethics. “If the stock ownership isn’t disclosed, there’s no way to know.”
Lubet said that the idea that revealing the name of the stock would reach the level of endangering Kacsmaryk or a family member was “certainly questionable.”
Kacsmaryk is also in the spotlight as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas faces his own controversies over failure to disclose international trips and a real estate deal involving a right-wing billionaire, following reporting by the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who specializes in government ethics, said Kacsmaryk’s editorials were not in the same category as Thomas’ apparently willful failure to disclose required information over many years. But she said that in general, judges’ failure to be transparent about their finances could undermine “public trust in the courts.”
“He has successfully hidden his single largest reportable asset,” Clark said of Kacsmaryk. “We don’t know what it is … or what’s the justification for redacting it. it’s very strange.”