Report criticizes lax disclosure rules for state judges

December 4, 2013

Justices who work here have to disclose a lot more than their counterparts in state Supreme Courts. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Supreme Court judges in 11 states and the District of Columbia don’t have to tell the public when they receive major gifts, even if those gifts come from campaign donors or someone who might have a case before their court. Judges in nine states and the District don’t have to disclose their investment portfolios, even if they own stock in corporations with business before the court.

Those are among the findings of a new report from the Center for Public Integrity, which found a patchwork of state disclosure rules that frequently leave residents in the dark about possible conflicts of interest their Supreme Court judges might have.

“In many states, it’s practically impossible to glean any meaningful information from judges’ financial disclosures,” the report’s authors write.

Over the last three years, the center found 14 instances of Supreme Court justices participating in cases that involved companies in which they held stock. Nebraska Justice Lindsey Miller-Lerman ruled on cases involving Deutsche Bank, UPS and Union Pacific Corporation, all companies in which she owned stock. North Carolina Justice Robert Edmunds owned more than $10,000 in stock in Abbott Laboratories, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy, but participated in cases involving all three companies.

And in California, Justice Kathryn Werdegar voted to deny an appeal of a couple that accused Wells Fargo of predatory lending and unlawful foreclosure, despite the fact that she owned between $100,001 and $1 million in Wells Fargo stock. A court spokesman told the center that Werdegar “regrets the error,” and that the court would reexamine its internal conflict of interest procedures.

Gift laws are also much more lax at the state level than at the federal level. The report found that most state Supreme Court justices must disclose gifts; in the last three years, 82 state Supreme Court justices reported receiving about $279,000 in gifts. Washington state justices must report any gift over $50, while West Virginia justices cannot accept gifts of more than $25 from anyone who might have business before the court.

Other states are more lenient. Iowa justices can receive gifts worth any amount on their 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries. In Arkansas, Justice Courtney Goodson accepted a trip to Italy worth $50,000 and a Caribbean cruise worth $12,000 from her personal attorney, who also represents the chairman of Tyson Foods, a major food processor based in the state, the report said.

The District of Columbia has particularly lax disclosure laws for judges serving on the Court of Appeals, the city’s highest legal body. Judges must disclose income they receive outside their judicial salaries, along with investments and gifts, the report said, but the city only discloses two items — business and charitable affiliations and any honoraria the judges receive — to the public. The rest is confidential and only reviewed internally.

Justices on Virginia’s Supreme Court must disclose the types of businesses they or their spouses have represented. But the center criticized the Commonwealth for not requiring judges to disclose sources of income or debts owed if those amounts are under $10,000.

Maryland’s disclosure requirements are rated the second best in the country, behind only California. Members of Maryland’s Court of Appeals must disclose their financial interests and those of immediate family members, and the specific number of shares owned in publicly traded companies. But anyone who wants to see those reports has to visit the Court of Appeal’s office in person, one of just a few states that doesn’t make those reports available online or by mail.

No state requires their justices to disclose as much information about their investments or gift receipts as federal judges are required to disclose. The center gave California and Maryland B grades, while six other states — Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Hawaii, Colorado and Pennsylvania — received D grades.

Justices on the highest courts in Montana, Utah and Idaho aren’t required to file any disclosure reports at all, the report found.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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