How America’s Judges Are Being Bought Out

We think of courts as being immune to money interests. Some of them, as disclosure reports for state Supreme Court judges reveal, are not.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Dec. 4, 2013, midnight

In re­cent years, some ju­di­cial elec­tions have be­gun to look just like polit­ic­al cam­paigns, com­plete with at­tack ads, polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees, and mil­lions of dol­lars in fun­drais­ing for can­did­ates. The fin­an­cial in­volve­ment of spe­cial-in­terest groups in state Su­preme Court races across the coun­try has blurred the bound­ar­ies between money and polit­ics and justice, alarm­ing cit­izens and eth­i­cists alike.

After all, such en­tan­gle­ment can por­tend cor­rup­tion once judges reach the bench. But it’s not the only re­cipe for con­flict in the courtroom, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day by the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity, a non­par­tis­an, in­vest­ig­at­ive news or­gan­iz­a­tion.

When judges have a con­flict of in­terest in a giv­en case, they should re­cuse them­selves. But some­times that doesn’t hap­pen.

The per­son­al fin­ances of the 335 judges presid­ing in the states’ highest courts, of­ten shrouded in poor dis­clos­ure re­quire­ments, may in­flu­ence rul­ings, CPI found, wheth­er the justices know it or not. Ap­peals to de­cisions from a lower court to the U.S. Su­preme Court are rare, un­less there’s a ques­tion of con­sti­tu­tion­al law.

Us­ing in­put from ju­di­cial-eth­ics ex­perts, CPI built a re­port card eval­u­at­ing states’ fin­an­cial-re­port­ing re­quire­ments for state Su­preme Court judges (meth­od­o­logy here). The grad­ing sys­tem was based on a slightly tough­er ver­sion of dis­clos­ure re­quire­ments for fed­er­al judges, which re­ceived a B.

The top scorers, Cali­for­nia and Mary­land, re­ceived C’s. Six oth­ers got D’s, and the rest, in­clud­ing the Dis­trict of Columbia, failed. See a full break­down here.

Fin­an­cial-re­port­ing re­quire­ments for justices, the CPI re­port ex­plains, vary wildly from state to state. Ken­tucky does not re­quire its judges to dis­close the names of com­pan­ies in which they have a fin­an­cial in­terest. Ohio asks about gifts the judges re­ceive, but not how much they’re worth. In Montana, Utah, and Idaho, judges don’t have to file any dis­clos­ure re­ports at all.

CPI’s in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to just three years of fil­ings turned up some sur­prises. Some judges had au­thored opin­ions fa­vor­ing com­pan­ies in which they owned stock. Oth­ers ruled on cases when their fam­ily mem­bers were re­ceiv­ing in­come from one of the parties in­volved, while some ac­cep­ted gifts as lav­ish as a $50,000 trip to Italy.

Of the 273 judges re­quired to dis­close stock hold­ings, just un­der 40 per­cent re­por­ted own­ing stock. Of the 201 judges who are re­quired to dis­close spe­cif­ic value of gifts, 82 per­cent re­por­ted re­ceiv­ing roughly $279,000 in free stuff, about $1,800 per judge.

All told, CPI found 35 ex­amples of gifts, over­lap­ping in­vest­ments, and oth­er con­flicts that it deemed “ques­tion­able” — and it names names. These find­ings came even with, by the group’s meas­ure, poor dis­clos­ure prac­tices and, in some cases, even worse en­force­ment of trans­par­ency. The ma­jor­ity of states pen­al­ize judges for er­rors or dis­crep­an­cies in dis­clos­ure re­ports, from fines to jail time. Twelve states, however, rely on self-poli­cing, us­ing com­mit­tees of the high-court judges them­selves to dole out dis­cip­line.

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