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.
What We're Following See More »
"A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 34% of registered voters think the three presidential debates would be extremely or quite important in helping them decide whom to support for president. About 11% of voters are considered 'debate persuadables'—that is, they think the debates are important and are either third-party voters or only loosely committed to either major-party candidate."
Will he or won't he? That's the question surrounding Donald Trump and his on-again, off-again threats to bring onetime Bill Clinton paramour Gennifer Flowers to the debate as his guest. An assistant to flowers initially said she'd be there, but Trump campaign chief Kellyanne Conway "said on ABC’s 'This Week' that the Trump campaign had not invited Flowers to the debate, but she didn’t rule out the possibility of Flowers being in the audience."
NBC's Lester Holt hasn't hosted the "Nightly News" since Tuesday, as he's prepped for moderating the first presidential debate tonight—and the first of his career. He's called on a host of NBC talent to help him, namely NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack; NBC News president Deborah Turness; the news division's senior vice president of editorial, Janelle Rodriguez; "Nightly News" producer Sam Singal, "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd, senior political editor Mark Murray and political editor Carrie Dann. But during the debate itself, the only person in Holt's earpiece will be longtime debate producer Marty Slutsky.
"The House passed legislation late Thursday that would prohibit the federal government from making any cash payments to Iran, in protest of President Obama's recently discovered decision to pay Iran $1.7 billion in cash in January. And while the White House has said Obama would veto the bill, 16 Democrats joined with Republicans to pass the measure, 254-163."
In contrast to Hillary Clinton's meticulous debate practice sessions, Donald Trump "is largely shunning traditional debate preparations, but has been watching video of…Clinton’s best and worst debate moments, looking for her vulnerabilities.” Trump “has paid only cursory attention to briefing materials. He has refused to use lecterns in mock debate sessions despite the urging of his advisers. He prefers spitballing ideas with his team rather than honing them into crisp, two-minute answers.”