Oregon 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 Oregon:

Strengths:

Oregon requires judges to report the sources of income they or their family members receive, contributing to the state’s score of 15 out of 20 points in the outside income category. The state lost 5 points for failing to require judges to report the amount of income earned, either in exact amounts or ranges. However, judges are required to report the source and amount of any honoraria they receive. Oregon scored highest — a perfect 10 out of 10 — in the accountability category, because the state’s Government Ethics Commission has the authority to penalize judges for violating the financial disclosure law.

Weaknesses:

Like most states, Oregon asks its high court judges very little about their investments. Judges need not report the gross value of each investment. Nor must they report transactions made during the reporting period. State officials must only disclose their business investments “if the investment involved an individual or business that did business with or reasonably could be expected to do business with ... the public body” they serve. Judges cannot reasonably anticipate every business that might come before the court, so such vague instructions leave investment disclosure entirely to the judges’ discretion, according to Virginia Lutz, a program analyst at the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. “Anyone could file these, and we don’t know if they’ve omitted something,” Lutz said.

The state also fails to ask judges about the gifts they receive. The Oregon Code of Judicial Conduct does prohibit judges from accepting gifts from donors whose interests “have come or are likely to come before the court,” however it would be near impossible for judges to anticipate every party whose case might reach their court.

Highlights:

Despite the state’s failing grade, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission requires the additional reporting of any business a justice or his or her family member might have with a lobbyist. Indeed, Justice Rives Kistler disclosed his membership in the Appellate Judges Association and that the group employed two lobbyists in 2012.