Would you believe a state supreme court justice received a $50,000 trip to Italy from a lawyer who routinely appears before the court representing major clients?
Oh, it happened. And it could be happening a lot more often than you’d think because most states make it exceedingly difficult to discover. Every now and again someone will do important work pointing out that electing judges in an era of unfettered campaign contributions poses a significant risk to judicial integrity, and everyone will cluck their tongues, stroke their beards and wonder, “What’s to be done with this state court system?” A new study goes further and looks at the financial wheelings and dealings — and the lack of oversight they receive — of judges outside of election season.
How does your state court system fare?
Spoiler alert: Badly…
In general, state court systems receive far less scrutiny than they deserve. For a system that exerts much more direct influence over the day-to-day lives of Americans, state courts don’t get the fanfare of the federal system. Indeed, state courts don’t often grace the media (including this publication) unless it’s election time or they do something epically stupid. And it turns out state legislatures are just as uninterested in the goings-on in their state judiciaries as everyone else.
The Center for Public Integrity took the initiative to find out what’s going on in the various state court systems in its new report.
The Center scoured the state systems for financial disclosures, finding them difficult to obtain, inadequate, or completely absent. That’s right, in Montana, Utah, and Idaho, judges are on the damn honor system when it comes to accepting gifts and then doling out rulings.
After seeking input from leading judicial ethics experts, the Center created a grading system based on a slightly tougher version of disclosure requirements for federal judges. Federal disclosures scored an 84 out of 100 possible points for a letter grade of B. (See full methodology.)
Federal disclosures fell short because they are not available online and judges can report the value of investments in broad ranges rather than exact amounts.
It’s hard to catch impropriety when you’ve got your head in the sand. However, even with lax reporting requirements holding sway over much of the land, the Center was still able to find some wild gifts. Like the aforementioned $50,000 trip to Italy:
In 2012, Arkansas Justice Courtney Goodson accepted a $50,000 trip to Italy from Arkansas attorney W.H. Taylor, according to Goodson’s financial disclosure. The year before, Taylor paid for Goodson’s $12,000 “Caribbean Cruise.”
Goodson’s trip to Italy was by far the most expensive gift reported by supreme court justices in 2012. But she wasn’t the only judge to accept something of value.
A good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows the judge, I guess. The lawyer in question, W.H. Taylor, seems to be good friends with the justice and her husband. He’d have to be for that kind of outlay. Even though this gift is extreme, Justice Goodson has her ethics in the right place:
In Goodson’s case, the two trips she received from the Arkansas attorney were allowed under the state’s rules. However, they raised eyebrows after media reports earlier this year revealed that Taylor’s clients include John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, Inc., a food-processing giant based in Arkansas. Taylor and John Goodson, the justice’s husband, have collaborated on several lawsuits.
In an emailed statement to the Center, court spokeswoman Stephanie Harris wrote that Goodson will recuse herself from cases involving Taylor, who is also the judge’s personal attorney. “And out of an abundance of caution,” Harris’ email said, “she will continue to recuse in cases involving Tyson.”
The Arkansas legal community can’t be too big, and it’s natural for high-profile practitioners to know each other — but even with diligent recusals, it certainly doesn’t look good when one justice has to constantly recuse herself from cases involving one of the state’s largest enterprises because she gets pricey vacations paid for by lawyers.
Over in North Carolina, the justices aren’t nearly as conscientious as Justice Goodson:
North Carolina Justice Robert Edmunds is one of many judges who reported family ownership of shares in dozens of companies.
The Center found that he ruled in favor of two companies in which he owned stock — Abbott Laboratories and Wells Fargo & Co.
In an interview, Edmunds told the Center that it was not a conflict of interest for him to preside in those cases.
“Our ethical rules allow participation if the ownership is de minimis,” he said, using the Latin term to describe a trivial amount. “It was so minuscule. … It effectively means whatever decision I make will not have any impact on my financial situation.”
North Carolina’s forms only require that investments worth at least $10,000 be reported, but do not ask for an exact amount.
He declined to provide the value of his holdings in those companies.
De minimis is a tricky word, but holding over $10,000 in one company should exceed it. North Carolina Supreme Court justices make around $140,000 by my reckoning. Obviously, most judges — for better or worse — are coming off lucrative private practice careers, and $10,000 may not matter much to their net worth. Hell, their $140,000 salary may not matter much to their net worth. But that’s not really the point. Take it away, professor:
[Stephen] Gillers, the NYU professor, said judges often tell him they feel that people wrongly assume that a gift or an investment means they can be corrupted.
“I say, it’s not about you, and it’s not about your incorruptibility. It’s about the public’s confidence in unbiased decision-making,” he said. “You can have a just opinion, but if people think it’s unjust because of some undue influence, then the administration of justice has suffered.”
And that’s the point. The “appearance of impropriety” is essential, and when the average American can’t wrap their heads around the idea that a lawyer can just forget about a stray $10,000 (not to mention $19.5 million), it’s not cool to be ruling on cases that impact your investments, and it’s less cool for the state to just wash its hands entirely of keeping its court system’s reputation above reproach.
Be sure to check out the whole report because there are many, many more tales of shoddy regulations passing for judicial-ethics regimes.
State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information [Center for Public Integrity]
Justice At Risk [American Constitution Society]