N.M. bill aims to put judge disclosures back online

Proposed reform follows Center for Public Integrity investigation on financial transparency

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A New Mexico lawmaker is pushing to have judges’ financial disclosures posted online after the state earned a failing grade in a Center for Public Integrity investigation into public transparency.

State Sen. Jacob R. Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, introduced a bill this month that would require all financial disclosure statements filed by judges and officers of the judicial branch to be posted on the Secretary of State’s website and the state’s Sunshine Portal, which he called the state's go-to-place for government information.

The forms that judges file annually were posted on the Secretary of State's site as recently as 2012, but the practice ceased last year because the existing laws apparently don’t call for it. “The Office of the Secretary of State supports transparency and openness in government, however at this time there is no authorization in statute that permits us to provide these disclosures online,” spokesman Ken Ortiz told the Center. The forms came down after some concerns about security.

Candelaria, who is also a first-year law student, said he was inspired to file the bill by the Center's findings about New Mexico's disclosure. The state earned 38.8 out of 100 possible points for its judicial financial disclosure requirements in the Center’s study. Had the state posted the files online, its score would have improved to 43.8.

"This seemed to be an easy, common-sense fix to make them more accessible to folks," Candelaria said in an interview. “Our courts are just like any other part of government that work best when people have faith in the process." 

He said he will likely introduce an amendment to allow judges' home addresses, emails and phone numbers to be redacted from the reports because of security concerns. The sections listing the judges' names and financial ties would remain public.

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.

But getting the forms isn’t always easy. Twelve states currently post at least some portions of the forms online, including California and Hawaii which require among the most detailed disclosures nationwide. But other states only provide them upon request. And three states require that people pick them up in person.

In the wake of the Center’s Justice Obscured investigation, several other states have also proposed reforms. California court officials pledged to review an internal system for catching conflicts of interest after the Center found a judge who owned as much as $1 million of Wells Fargo stock when she participated in a case favoring the financial giant. Wyoming officials posted judicial reports online. District of Columbia officials are reviewing disclosure requirements there. And Montana’s top court proposed judicial disclosures for the first time