Justice Obscured

Published — January 15, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

D.C. mulls changes to judicial transparency

Commission reviewing rules for judges after District receives ‘F’ for financial disclosure

Introduction

A District of Columbia judicial oversight commission could soon recommend changes that would force District judges to reveal more details about their personal finances.

The D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure’s potential recommendations follow a Center for Public Integrity investigation that ranks the financial disclosure requirements for D.C. judges among the worst in the nation.

But reforms may not come quickly, if at all: Any commission recommendation would require congressional approval, according to the commission and other D.C. officials.

At this juncture, discussions among members of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure “are still very preliminary,” said Cathaee Hudgins, the body’s executive director.

But during its monthly meeting on Jan. 8, the commission “had a very lengthy discussion” about the District’s financial disclosure requirements, Hudgins confirmed.

Hudgins said the commission will continue its discussion about D.C.’s financial disclosure requirements at its February meeting. So for now, she said, “we’re not going to start knocking on doors in Congress.”

Indeed, any changes recommended by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure must be enacted by Congress, as the D.C. City Council does not have the authority to act on changes proposed by the commission, council officials confirmed.

Judges who preside over cases for the District of Columbia Courts get paid by the federal government. But when it comes to publicly disclosing how they invest their paychecks, D.C. judges aren’t held to the same standard as their counterparts on the federal bench.

Federal judges’ disclosures are fairly extensive. The reports filed by D.C. judges? Not so much.

The Center for Public Integrity gave the District an “F” for its poor judicial disclosure law and ranked it tied for 47th among state high courts nationwide.

Only three states — Montana, Idaho and Utah — scored worse. That’s because those states don’t require judges to publicly report any information about their personal finances. (In light of the Center’s report, however, Montana’s Supreme Court recently issued an order requiring judges to file the same financial disclosures as other statewide officials.)

The District scored so poorly because the vast majority of the personal financial information that judges report to the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure is kept hidden from the public. Only two of the disclosure form’s 10 sections — “Business and Charitable Affiliations” and “Honorarium” — are open for public inspection. The rest, including non-judicial income, investments and gifts, is kept confidential and only reviewed internally by the Commission, an agency in charge of disciplining judges.

Financial reports filed by federal judges, including U.S. Supreme Court justices, publicly disclose everything from non-judicial income and investments to gifts and reimbursements. Some states require similar levels of public disclosure.

In a phone interview, Hudgins told the Center for Public Integrity that the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, whose meetings are closed to the public, specifically discussed how D.C.’s financial disclosure requirements compared to those in California and Maryland, states whose disclosure rules scored the highest marks in the Center for Public Integrity’s report.

She said commissioners were “surprised” to learn that California, Maryland and other states made public every section of their financial disclosure reports, including sections where judges disclose investments and liabilities.

“We didn’t realize that the whole reports were public,” Hudgins said.

If D.C. released the entirety of its judges’ financial interest reports, the District would earn 65 points instead of 15 out of 100 possible points. That would raise its grade from an “F” to a “D” and — even with that mediocre score — rank it among the top five states for judicial disclosure, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s grading system.

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