Virginia 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 Virginia:

Strengths:

Virginia requires its Supreme Court justices to disclose the types of businesses they or their spouses have represented before government agencies. Most judges have previous careers as attorneys — or are married to practicing lawyers — so this requirement can uncover potential conflicts of interest on the bench.

Weaknesses:

Virginia seeks at least some information about all six disclosure categories the Center evaluated, but it falls short in the level of specificity required. The commonwealth asks its Supreme Court justices — along with all other public office holders — to disclose sources of non-judicial income, but only if the income is in excess of $10,000. Filers must describe the type and issuer of their financial holdings in detail, however the value of such investments are indicated only in broad ranges. Liabilities need only be reported if they exceed a $10,000 threshold, and the state form does not ask for the name of each creditor.

Highlights:

At least two of Virginia’s Supreme Court justices’ spouses practice law in the state. Justice Elizabeth McClanahan is married to Byrum Geisler, an estate planning specialist who works in the Abington office of PennStuart, the firm where McClanahan was partner before taking the bench. Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn is married to Sharon Goodwyn, a labor and employment attorney for Hunton & Williams, in Norfolk, who is licensed to practice before the state’s high court. Katya Herndon, a spokeswoman for the state’s judicial system, told the Center that in cases when a justice’s spouse — or an attorney from a spouse’s firm — comes before the court, that justice must recuse.