State News

December 4, 2013

Report: States more lax than feds on judge rules

WASHINGTON — All 50 states and the District of Columbia have more lax financial disclosure rules for their high court justices than the disclosure requirements for federal judges, according to an analysis from a watchdog group.

In three states — Montana, Utah and Idaho — Supreme Court judges do not have to publicly report their personal financial interests, said the report released Wednesday by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. Idaho, though, has recently proposed changing its rules to require judges to report income sources, gifts and travel reimbursements.

Other states, such as California and Hawaii, were praised for putting disclosure reports online for the public.

The center examined three years of records for the states’ highest-ranking judges. Disclosure rules vary by state.

In Kentucky, for example, judges are not required to provide the names of the companies in which they have a financial interest. Instead, the report said, ownership is reported in broad categories such as “insurance,” “entertainment” and “energy.”

“Despite the almost universally dismal requirements on disclosure, we still were able to identify conflicts,” said John Dunbar, the center’s manager for the project.

California was ranked as the state with the strongest disclosure requirements. Yet, the report said a California Supreme Court justice didn’t recuse herself from a 2012 decision to turn away an appeal filed by a couple against Wells Fargo — even though the justice owned shares in the company worth between $100,000 and $1 million. Justices are only required to report the value of income and investments in ranges, not specific figures.

The justice, Kathryn Werdegar, joined five other justices in voting to deny review of the case involving predatory lending accusations. A fellow justice with financial ties to Wells Fargo recused himself from the vote.

A court spokesman says that Werdegar’s 2012 acquisition of Wells Fargo stock was inadvertently omitted from the court’s conflicts list and that the court is reviewing its procedures to prevent “similar errors in the future.”

Some states don’t include financial information about spouses or require any disclosure of gifts to judges.

Others have gift limits but with loopholes. The center cited Iowa, which allows these judges to receive gifts worth any amount for their wedding or for their 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries.

The report also highlighted the case of Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson, who reportedly accepted a $50,000 trip to Italy from an attorney who does business with her husband. The attorney also represents the head of Tyson Foods in Arkansas, the report said. The justice has recused herself from Tyson-related cases dating back to 2011, and a spokeswoman said she will continue to recuse from Tyson cases.

Stephen Gillers, an ethics professor at New York University School of Law, says the appearance of impartiality is as important as actual impartiality.

“When we do allow gifts, and many jurisdictions allow them, the fallback position is to require disclosure,” Gillers said in an interview. “It’s important not only to future litigants but also to the public in jurisdictions that elect judges.”

Only a dozen states post at least some of the financial disclosure information online for public view, said the center. Those states were: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.

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Online:

http://www.publicintegrity.org/

 

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