West 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 West Virginia:

Strengths:

West Virginia judges file two separate financial disclosure forms — one with the state Ethics Commission, the other with the state Supreme Court. The state scored most of its points in the outside income, accountability and accessibility categories. West Virginia earned a perfect score in the accountability section because judges can face misdemeanor charges for knowingly filing false reports. The state also earned 7.5 out of 10 points for making half of its reports available for public inspection online. (Disclosures filed with the West Virginia Ethics Commission are posted online; those filed with the Supreme Court, however, are not.) The state earned 15 out of 20 points in the outside income category because judges must report the source of any income they or their spouses receive.

Weaknesses:

West Virginia asks little about the investments of its high court judges, who aren’t required to disclose income, transactions or the value associated with each investment — just the name of the asset.

Highlights:

The state restricts public officials from accepting gifts worth $25 or more from lobbyists or parties likely to come before them. However, it is nearly impossible for judges to anticipate who might appear before their court. Joan Parker, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, acknowledged that the statewide gift laws do not always “match up nicely” with judicial ethics standards. Additionally, judges may accept unlimited food and drink as long as the donor is present for the meal.