Justice Obscured

Published — January 9, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Montana proposes reforms after earning ‘F’ for judicial disclosure

Proposed changes follow Center for Public Integrity investigation on financial transparency

Introduction

Montana’s highest court is proposing that state judges fill out personal financial disclosure forms — a move that follows a Center for Public Integrity investigation that gave the state a failing grade for its lack of transparency.

The Montana Supreme Court issued an order on Jan. 2 calling for all judges and judicial candidates to face the same financial disclosure requirements as other statewide officials. The order, signed by Chief Justice Mike McGrath, would bring the state in line with the American Bar Association’s model code of judicial conduct.

Montana is one of just three states nationwide that has not required its judges to file personal financial disclosures, according to the Center’s findings in its Dec. 4 Justice Obscured investigation.

The Center evaluated the disclosure rules in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and compared them with those that federal judges face. It then reviewed disclosure reports of more than 300 top judges to flag potential conflicts of interest involving their finances and caseloads.

Such disclosures help build public confidence in the judicial system by providing transparency about judges’ financial ties, judicial ethics experts say.

Utah and Idaho are the only other states without disclosure rules for state judges, although Idaho has proposed adding some reporting requirements for judges.

Montana court officials had been resistant to the idea of disclosure, with court officials saying that they already had rules in place to avoid financial conflicts. After the Center’s Justice Obscured investigation ran, McGrath told the Associated Press that by following a strictly enforced code of judicial conduct, the court has “moved sort of beyond mere disclosure.”

Judicial experts and local newspaper editorials, however, called for letting the public evaluate those financial ties, too.

One of the newspapers to call for such reforms, the Great Falls Tribune, is now praising the court’s proposed rule in an editorial. It called the move a “breath of fresh air.”

McGrath did not return a call for comment immediately Thursday.

The proposal now undergoes a 60-day public comment period. Then, the Supreme Court justices will hold a public meeting to discuss any input on the idea, Montana Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin said.

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