Tennessee 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 Tennessee:

Strengths:

Tennessee judges are required to file two separate financial disclosure reports — one with the state Ethics Commission, the other with the Administrative Office of the Courts. The Center’s grade reflects the information contained in both reports. The state earned full credit for seeking information about judges’ outside income: judges must report the amount of extra income they earn beyond their judicial salaries, as well as the sources of income earned by their spouses and dependent children. Tennessee earned another perfect score in the accountability section because judges face civil penalties of up to $10,000 for failing to file timely and complete reports.

Weaknesses:

Tennessee lost points for its poor disclosure rules about investments and gifts. When reporting investments, judges need only disclose the name of the business in which they, their spouse or dependent children held a financial interest larger than $10,000 or 5 percent of all holdings. They are not required to report income made from those investments, transactions involving them or the total value of each holding. The state only required information about gifts given to the judge, not to immediate family members. The state also earned zero out of 10 possible points for requiring disclosure of reimbursed expenses because it doesn’t require reporting of any paid trips, waived conference fees and the like. Tennessee also scored fairly low in the liabilities section, earning just 8 out of 20 points for requiring only the names of creditors to which the judge, their spouse or dependent children owe money. Judges do not have to describe the loans or specify how much they owe to each creditor.

Highlights:

The Tennessee Ethics Commission posts disclosure reports of Supreme Court justices (as well as the governor, legislators and many other public officials) online. However, Tennessee’s five justices must also file annual gift and outside compensation forms which are not available online. Consequently, the state did not receive full credit for making financial disclosures as accessible as possible.