Maryland earns ‘C’ for judicial financial disclosure

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The Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. The level of disclosure in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was poor, with 43 receiving failing grades, making it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench. Despite the lack of information in the public records, the Center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country. Here’s what the Center found in Maryland:

Strengths:

Maryland’s disclosure rules ranked as the second best in the country, behind California, according to the Center’s analysis. Judges on the Court of Appeals, as the state’s highest court is called, must disclose their financial interests as well as those of their spouses and children, whether the judge has direct control of them or not. The state asks for real estate holdings, including when the property was acquired and from whom. It asks for the number of shares owned in publicly traded companies and for judges to disclose transactions involving their investments.

Weaknesses:

Maryland may have strong disclosure rules, relative to other states, but people who want to see the reports are required to visit the court’s offices in person, one of only a handful of states with that requirement. The state also lost points for not specifically asking judges to disclose reimbursements for expenses, such as airfare, lodging and registration for conferences. Some of the judges choose to list such items as gifts, but the state disclosure forms did not explicitly ask for such information.

Highlights:

Judge Glenn Harrell Jr. had a mortgage with JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, yet authored an opinion in 2012 in Polek et al. v. JPMorgan Chase et al. about secondary mortgage loans. The court ruled in favor of the banks, affirming lower-court dismissals in deciding that lenders are not restricted to a single loan- origination fee. “It’s true that I had the refinance loan on my home,” Harrell told the Center. “There’s no actual conflict. It’s a commercial rate available to others. I always pay my bill on time and I hold no grudge against them.” He said his loan with the bank did not meet Maryland’s standard for recusal. “If I had owned stock in JPMorgan that would be entirely different,” he said.