Court columns

The Sorry State of Disclosure for State Supreme Court Justices

A new study reveals that disclosures by state supreme court justices are frequently hard to access and lack relevant financial information. 

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Revelations that Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito accepted undisclosed gifts from people with business before the Court have shaken public confidence in the institution’s integrity and impartiality.

But the crisis of secrecy extends beyond Washington. Far too many states are shielding critical information about their supreme court judges from the public.

State supreme courts are more important than ever. Whether the issue is elections, gun rights, or reproductive rights, the views of the handful of individuals who serve at the top of a state’s judiciary can impact our daily lives as much as, and sometimes more than, the views of our federal judges and justices.

That’s why it’s vital the public understands what financial interests and other entanglements state supreme court judges might have. If the public doesn’t know what types of gifts and free trips a judge has received during the year, or what investments they have, or where their spouse works, then we can’t be certain they’re truly unbiased no matter what cases come before them.

Theoretically, the easiest way to figure out this information is via the annual financial disclosure reports that state judges must file every year for public inspection, much as federal judges do. (That is, in 48 of 50 states; Idaho and Utah don’t require annual judicial disclosures.) But many states make disclosures hard to access or require scant information to be disclosed. Only 24 of the 48 states that require annual judicial disclosures post their judges’ reports online. And 28 states require the disclosure of less information than the federal judiciary — a relatively low bar to begin with.

Late last year, I started a project to obtain and grade the 2022 annual disclosures — the most recently available reports — for every state supreme court chief justice in the country. Since only half the states post their reports online, it took me several months to get all of them. I compiled information about all the disclosure processes, including links to those available online and instructions for how to obtain those that aren’t.

Next, I graded the content of each state’s disclosures. The more useful the information contained in a state’s report, the higher its grade. States received points for including categories of disclosure required for federal judges, such as spousal income, gifts, and investments. I also considered whether states required disclosure of four items that are not in the federal reports but should be: real estate holdings; the dollar value of gifts received; the dollar value of reimbursements for transportation, lodging, and meals; and an affirmation that the judge attended required ethics training that year. I then gave each state a separate grade for how long it took me to get the reports. You can see how your state scored here, and a breakdown of grading methodology is available here.

I took several lessons away from this project. First, far too many states are not posting their judges’ disclosures online, and that needs to be changed by the legislature or the judiciary itself. Members of the public should reach out to their state legislators and court administrators urging new laws or regulations to require online posting of disclosures.

Second, there should be a maximum of one financial disclosure report that a judge fills out each year. A dozen states require judges to file two separate disclosures, the first typically covering investments, spousal income, real estate, and board positions, and the second covering extra-judicial compensation, gifts, and reimbursements. For the most part, the second reports are not online. Merging these reports would be an important improvement.

Third, we need to change the culture around disclosures so that they become an anticipated part of state judiciaries’ work. It was disappointing how often I’d call or email a state court administrator or ethics official who had little to no idea what I was talking about when asking for a disclosure or a gift report.

Finally, the project is instructive for the federal judiciary, not just the states. The eight categories of disclosure for federal judges leave buried large swaths of financial interests that could reveal biases impacting how a judge might rule in a particular case. For example, federal judges are not asked enough about their real estate holdings — they can simply list “XYZ LLC” in their reports, and the public has no easy way of knowing if the entity is a business or a real estate holding company. They are also not required to attend yearly ethics trainings; they should be, and they should have to attest to their attendance in their disclosures. And, like a third of the states, federal judges should be required to list the exact value of the gifts they’ve received, as well as reimbursements they’ve received for transportation, lodging, and meals, given the monumental differences between flying commercial and private or between staying at, say, the Ritz and the Radisson.

A decade ago, only 12 states posted judicial disclosures online, according to a 2013 report on the topic by the Center for Public Integrity. Today, that number has doubled to 24. Given the increasing importance of our state courts and the critical role disclosures play in holding jurists accountable, we can’t wait another decade for that number to double again.

Gabe Roth is executive director of Fix the Court, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that advocates for more openness and accountability at all levels of the judiciary.

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