North Dakota earns ‘F’ 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 North Dakota:

Strengths:

The North Dakota secretary of state’s office requires candidates for election to its highest court to disclose the names of their business interests. A separate form, filed with the court, requires judges to annually disclose income received beyond their government position. A spouse’s financial interests must be reported at the same level of specificity. Additionally, North Dakota attaches strong enforcement measures to its financial disclosure rules; candidates who report incorrect or incomplete information are prohibited from assuming office.

Weaknesses:

Financial disclosure requirements in the Roughrider State are far from tough. The secretary of state’s form — which candidates for statewide and local office must complete — fails to ask for information about free trips or conferences. Judges need not disclose their household debt. In addition, Supreme Court candidates must only file with the secretary of state prior to an election — justices’ financial activity once they reach the bench is a mystery. The court’s sitting Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle last filed a financial disclosure in 2004, a gap which conceals nearly a decade of the justice’s financial interests. When asked about the state’s failing grade, North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger was unmoved. “Our state’s laws are what they are,” Jaeger wrote in an email. “Your report reflects what they are.”

Highlights:

Justice Carol Ronning Kapsner was disqualified from a 2012 estate dispute in which an attorney from the Vogel Law Firm — where her husband works — argued on behalf of the appellant. Kapsner was replaced by part-time judge H. Patrick Weir, who was a partner at Vogel for at least 40 years and whose son, H. Patrick Weir Jr., now leads the firm’s personal injury group as managing partner. Judge Weir did not return calls for comment. Court clerk Penny Miller could not confirm why Kapsner recused, nor why Weir did not, but said, “Under our code of judicial conduct, it’s up to each justice to decide when and why they recuse, and they are not required to provide my office of a record of why they recuse.”