Montana judges to disclose financial ties after Center report

State Supreme Court reforms judicial code of conduct to require disclosure of stocks, real estate, earnings

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Montana judges must now disclose details about their personal financial ties, a response to a Center for Public Integrity investigation that gave the state a failing grade for its lack of transparency.

The Montana Supreme Court approved the new requirement Tuesday, calling for all judges and judicial candidates to report the same information that all other statewide officials must already disclose, according to the clerk’s office.

Montana had been one of just three states nationwide that had not required its judges to file personal financial disclosures, according to the Center’s findings in its Dec. 4 'Justice Obscured' investigation. The reforms, however, don’t go as far as most states’ requirements.

Under the new rule, all judges and judicial candidates will now have to disclose investments they own worth more than $1,000 and the source of any income they receive. They will also have to report real estate holdings beyond their primary residence.

Montana Supreme Court justices, who are elected to eight-year terms, already must report any campaign contributions and expenditures when they file to run for office. 

The new information is expected to be posted online by the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, according to program supervisor Mary Baker. Only a handful of states post such reports online.

Even under the new standards, Montana still fails the Center’s test for transparency. It would earn at most 17.5 points out of a possible 100, because the forms don’t ask about gifts the judges receive, debts the judges owe or the financial ties of the judges’ spouses and dependent children. Also, judges will disclose their personal finances every other year, rather than annually as most states require. (Judicial candidates would have to report within five days of filing for office.)

A score of 17.5 would put Montana in a tie with Iowa and Minnesota for 45th place, continuing to rank among the worst nationwide.

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 disclosure helps maintain public confidence in the judicial system by providing transparency about judges' financial ties, ethics experts say.

But Montana court officials had been resistant to sharing information about judges’ personal finances, noting that judges already faced rules on when to step aside in cases where a conflict might arise.

Even after the Center’s report, Montana State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath told the Associated Press that by following a strictly enforced code of judicial conduct, the court had “moved sort of beyond mere disclosure.”

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

The new rule puts Montana a step ahead of at least Utah and Idaho, states where judges still are not required to publicly disclose any information about their personal finances.

Idaho has been considering adding some disclosure requirements. But Jim Carlson, executive director of the Idaho Judicial Council that proposed the changes, told the Center this week that no changes will occur for at least another five months. “Obviously, it’s an ongoing process,” he said.