When it comes to disclosing judges' salaries, investments, gifts and other financial information, the District of Columbia recently received a failing grade in a nationwide survey.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization, gave 41 states plus D.C. an 'F' in a new report released this week on how states handle public financial disclosures by high court judges. The center's grades were based on what information judges were required to disclose, how much of that information was made public and whether judges were held accountable for filing.
The District tied for the lowest score among states that require at least some financial disclosures by judges. Judges in the D.C. Court of Appeals face "fairly extensive" disclosure requirements, the Center for Public Integrity's report noted, but the majority of that information is kept out of the public eye. D.C. Superior Court judges follow the same disclosure rules as their colleagues in the appeals court.
The D.C. courts are bound by financial disclosure requirements put in place by Congress in 1970. As previously reported by The National Law Journal, congressional records show the rules were modeled after disclosure requirements in place at that time for the U.S. Senate. The Senate eventually opened up its financial reports to greater public scrutiny, but never changed the disclosure rules for the D.C. courts.
The public sections of annual financial reports filed by D.C. judges don't include information on judges' income, investments, liabilities, gifts or expense reimbursements. The public section lists the judges' affiliations with private organizations, charities and businesses, and honorariums received in excess of $300.
The D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure manages the financial reporting process for local judges. Executive Director Cathaee Hudgins said the commission is bound by the rules put in place by Congress. "It's out of our hands," she said. "The commission has abided by the statute."
The Center for Public Integrity report drew a connection between the accessibility of judges' financial information and the public's ability to identify possible conflicts of interest.
Chief Judge Eric Washington of the D.C. Court of Appeals said no one had raised concerns with him about the amount of information released to the public from the annual financial reports. He said in an email that judges were sensitive to conflicts of interest—real or perceived—and that in his experience, "on a number of occasions judges have tended to recuse from cases too quickly."
"[E]ven when a judge doesn’t believe a relationship raises ethical concerns warranting recusal, it is not unusual for the judge to disclose the nature of the relationship just to give the parties an opportunity to raise any objections," Washington said.
Judges are bound by the D.C. Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to divest financial interests that might pose serious conflicts of interest. The code also restricts gifts and other types of income judges can receive. Judges who break the rules can face disciplinary action.
The federal court system received the highest grade in the Center for Public Integrity report, a 'B.' Maryland and California received a 'C,' and six states—Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Hawaii, Colorado and Pennsylvania—received a 'D.'
Idaho, Montana and Utah received the lowest possible scores for not requiring any annual financial disclosures by high court judges.