A $50,000 vacation?
In 2012, Arkansas Justice Courtney Goodson accepted a $50,000 trip to Italy from Arkansas attorney W.H. Taylor, according to Goodson’s financial disclosure. The year before, Taylor paid for Goodson’s $12,000 “Caribbean Cruise.”
Goodson’s trip to Italy was by far the most expensive gift reported by supreme court justices in 2012. But she wasn’t the only judge to accept something of value.
In fact, judges reported receiving everything from meals and Indianapolis 500 tickets to country club memberships and expense-paid trips to attend conferences. In some cases, gifts received by judges stood out because of their sheer value, or because the gift giver could have ended up before the court.
Out of 335 judges, 248 are required to report at least some information about gifts or reimbursements they receive, but only 201 are required to disclose the dollar value of the gifts. Of that number, 82 judges reported receiving roughly $279,000 in freebies, with a median value of more than $1,800 per judge.
Twelve states don’t require any disclosure of gifts received or expenses reimbursed.
Some states have gift limits or restrictions. The state of Washington’s rules are especially strong, limiting gifts to $50 or less. Still, the limits are not without problems due to exceptions or loopholes.
Washington judges can receive “unsolicited tokens or awards of appreciation” worth more than $50 yet still not have to report them. In Iowa, officials face restrictions but can receive gifts worth any amount on their wedding or 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries.
And West Virginia restricts public officials from accepting gifts worth $25 or more from lobbyists or parties who are likely to come before them, meaning judges have to anticipate who might end up in their courtroom.
Joan Parker, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, acknowledged that the statewide gift laws do not always “match up nicely” with judicial ethics standards. Additionally, West Virginia’s public officials may accept limitless food and drinks as long as the donor is present.
Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor who specializes in ethics, said gifts should not be banned. “The solution is transparency and reporting.”
Most states only require gifts above a certain dollar amount to be reported and the starting points vary widely, from as little as $50 in Virginia to as high as $1,000 in New York and New Jersey.
In Goodson’s case, the two trips she received from the Arkansas attorney were allowed under the state’s rules. However, they raised eyebrows after media reports earlier this year revealed that Taylor’s clients include John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, Inc., a food-processing giant based in Arkansas. Taylor and John Goodson, the justice’s husband, have collaborated on several lawsuits.
In an emailed statement to the Center, court spokeswoman Stephanie Harris wrote that Goodson will recuse herself from cases involving Taylor, who is also the judge’s personal attorney. “And out of an abundance of caution,” Harris’ email said, “she will continue to recuse in cases involving Tyson.”
Henry Chambers, a professor of law at the University of Richmond, said that such an extravagant gift from an attorney to a judge might suggest a greater systemic problem with the state’s legal community.
“I just can’t imagine that there are very many legal cultures around the country where that would be viewed as anything but crazy, horrible judgment. You shouldn’t have to have a rule on something like that,” Chambers said. “That’s something where you’ve just got to clean up the legal culture.”
Sometimes judges don’t step aside from cases involving gift givers.
In 2012, for example, Be-Be Adams, a registered lobbyist for Barrick Gold of North America, gave a $250 gift to Nevada Supreme Court Justice Ron Parraguirre, presumably a ticket to a charity gala.
Less than two months after the benefit, Parraguirre’s court received a still-pending case referred by a U.S. Court of Appeals, involving one of the company's mines.
His assistant, Roxanne Doyle, told the Center on his behalf that the gift posed no conflict.
“That information was disclosed pursuant to the rules,” she said. “It has no effect on his rulings.”
Gillers, the NYU professor, said judges often tell him they feel that people wrongly assume that a gift or an investment means they can be corrupted.
“I say, it’s not about you, and it’s not about your incorruptibility. It’s about the public’s confidence in unbiased decision-making,” he said. “You can have a just opinion, but if people think it’s unjust because of some undue influence, then the administration of justice has suffered.”
Who needs disclosure?
But discovering “undue influence” requires robust, easy-to-access financial disclosures — something few states have and which some state officials find unnecessary.
In Montana, where judges don’t file personal financial disclosures, officials say judges are subject to the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct and that’s enough to discourage bad behavior. “Frankly, we believe the rules provide a solid guideline for justices to avoid financial conflicts or potential conflicts,” said McLaughlin, the state court administrator.
Minnesota’s court spokesman John Kostouros said his state, which earned just 17.5 points in the Center’s study, does not need the types of disclosure rules that are necessary in states such as Illinois or New York.
“You really have to watch public officials in those states,” Kostouros said. “Minnesota has a very low tolerance for corruption.”
However, Cynthia Gray, director of the American Judicature Society’s Center for Judicial Ethics, said financial disclosures are a crucial tool for courts to share with the public to help demonstrate the integrity of their judges.