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State Courts Require Scant Financial Reporting From Their Judges. The ABA Can Help.

By Dylan Hosmer-Quint, Research Associate

Though most of our work focuses on transparency in the federal judiciary, state courts also have a long way to go. That’s why we wrote to the American Bar Association today to ask that they develop a national standard that state judiciaries can use for financial disclosures.

The standard we envision would include minimum reporting requirements for financial information, as well as transparency requirements for the public’s access to disclosure forms.

Read the letter here.

The ABA has led efforts to modernize state judiciaries in the past. The model judicial code of conduct propagated by the ABA is utilized in nearly every state judiciary, as well as the federal court system. Financial disclosures, of utmost importance in holding judges accountable and fostering public trust in the courts, are sorely in need of updates, including the information judges are required to disclose and the public’s access to the forms.

As Roth writes, “The remedy for obfuscation, as so often is the case, is sunlight, and the ABA is well-situated to lead this effort.”

States judicial financial disclosure requirements vary widely. For example, judges in Illinois are not required  to disclose the quantity of stock ownership and are not required to disclosure stocks valued less than $5,000. Kentucky’s judges are somehow not required to name the company in which they own stock, just the industry, raising obvious questions for checking . New York outlines a process for judges to request exemption from disclosure filings, and routinely allows judges to file late with impunity. In defiance of due diligence, Hawaii judges can simply check a box stating their finances haven’t changed from one year to the next. Even states like Florida and Texas, whose disclosures are more thorough than other states, do not automatically post judge’s reports online, instead requiring the public to jump through hoops to receive public records.

If adopted, an ABA standard would improve each of these areas. Writes Roth: “These guidelines would include categories likes judges’ outside income, debts, gifts, investments and travel reimbursements, and would establish value floors or ranges. They might also include recommendations for how to grant the public access to these reports.”

State judiciaries financial disclosure requirements were analyzed in detail by the Center for Public Integrity in 2013.  The report  found that nationwide, limited information was required and reporting guidelines were slack. In the assessment of CPI, 42 top state courts, plus the District of Columbia’s, received failing grades, and no state received an A or a B.

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