I know of few other news organization that would do this: spend nearly nine months and countless hours going over every personal financial disclosure statement from a total of 335 state supreme court justices. That’s more than 4,000 pages from all 50 states going back three years. That’s what the Center for Public Integrity has just accomplished. Then we issued a grade for every state, making all of this information public.
The result is a new comprehensive report showing that 42 states and the District of Columbia received a failing grade for their disclosure requirements for high court judges. Not a single state earned an A or a B. The two highest-scoring states — California and Maryland — got Cs. Six other states earned a D, while the rest failed.
The Center’s investigation found multiple examples of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads as well as other entanglements. The Center found judges who authored opinions favoring companies in which they owned stock. We found judges who ruled on cases even when family members were receiving income from one of the parties. And we found judges who accepted lavish gifts — such as an Arkansas justice who accepted a $50,000 trip to Italy from a lawyer.
We also found that:
- Judges in three states — Montana, Utah and Idaho — aren’t required to file any disclosure reports at all.
- The Center identified 14 instances in the past three years in which justices or their spouses owned stock in companies involved in litigation before the judge.
- Twelve states rely on self-policing disciplinary bodies — made up of high-court justices themselves — to enforce their own courts’ ethical rules.
Other reports have noted the growing and potentially corrupting influence of campaign contributions on judicial elections. But little attention has been paid to the personal finances of the 335 judges in the state courts of last resort and how those holdings may influence decisions handed down from the bench.
The Center for Public Integrity’s findings have been re-published by more than six dozen other news organizations so far, from the Associated Press to the National Journal, and from the Washington Post to CBS.