Report Blasts Financial Disclosure Rules For Judges

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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When Chief Justice Chase Rogers recused herself from the landmark same-sex marriage case Kerrigan v. Department of Public Health in 2007, she did so to avoid a conflict of interest.

That was the right thing to do. After all, her husband's law firm, Robinson & Cole, had filed an amicus brief in the case supporting gay marriage. Through Edward O'Hanlan's position as a partner at the firm, it could have been perceived that Rogers had received an indirect financial benefit from the case. The perception of conflict made her recusal a necessary, obvious remedy.

But that kind of self-disclosure wasn't enough to save the state from receiving a failing grade in a recent study of financial disclosure rules by the Center for Public Integrity.

Connecticut was one of 44 states to receive an "F" in the report, which judged the "level of disclosure" required in judicial codes of ethics in the federal court system, 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Part of Connecticut's failure, the study claimed, is that it does not require judges to disclose financial information on spouses and adult children, which could reveal otherwise undetected conflicts. Connecticut Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll III doesn't views that as a problem and believes additional financial disclosure requirements are unnecessary.

"The judges in Connecticut are acutely aware of the vigilance required on their part to ensure that a conflict does not arise in the handling of a case," Carroll said.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, the federal courts provided the gold standard of financial reporting rules, earning a "B," while California and Maryland each earned a "C." Six other states, including Massachusetts, earned a "D." The rest failed, Connecticut included.

The study did not weigh whether courts fill judgeships by election or appointment. But it issued negative reviews for courts that do not require judges to list on publicly available financial disclosure reports specific names of companies they have invested in, or amounts of those investments.

Connecticut's Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to report the source and exact amount of any compensation received beyond their salaries, which the study considered favorably. Judges in the state also are required to submit investment information. But the state's failing grade—30 out of 100 points—was attributed in part to the fact that judges are not required to publicly disclose financial records of their spouses and children.

'Questionable Gifts'

Administrators of the Connecticut Judicial Branch were quick to point out flaws with the study, insisting that adequate rules of judicial conduct are in place to avoid what the center referred to as "questionable gifts and entanglements" of sitting judges.

"The grade given to Connecticut by the Center for Public Integrity fails to take into account that Connecticut judges have strict rules that govern their conduct," Carroll said.

"The Code of Judicial Conduct makes it very clear that judges must recuse themselves in any proceeding in which his or her impartiality might reasonably be questioned, for whatever reason, including financial interest," Carroll said. "And Connecticut's judges adhere to this rule."

On the Center for Public Integrity's website, the organization is described as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization." In a mission statement, its goal is "to serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using tools of investigative journalism."

Chris Young, a reporter with the Washington, D.C.-based center, said he and his colleagues pursued the project to look at the personal financial records of the nation's top judges "because nobody had really done it before."

"We wanted to take a closer look at how the disclosures are used in each of the states," he explained. They came up with a grading system, in which points were assessed for how much information was required for investments.

As a result of the broad financial disclosure rules for federal judges, the center gave the federal courts 84 out of 100 possible points, for a grade of "B." The 16 points docked were due to the fact that financial information for federal judges is not available online, and because exact amounts of their investments are not required.

When it came to the disclosure rules for the states, Young said, "it was practically impossible to glean any meaningful information from judges financial disclosures."

The center identified 14 instances in the past three years of various state supreme court justices participating in cases involving companies whose stock they or their spouses owned. None of those cases involved Connecticut justices.

Like federal jurists, state judges are permitted to own stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate and other investments. But state codes of conduct, modeled after American Bar Association guidelines, advise judges to manage their investment portfolios to avoid frequent recusals and limit their business associations with people who are likely to end up appearing in the judges' courtrooms.

Judge Aaron Ment, a retired Connecticut Superior Court judge and a former chief court administrator, said when examining the study's results people should "consider the source."

When the report gave Connecticut a "0" in the gift-reporting category because it said judges are not required to report gifts, "that was flat out wrong," Ment said. "Judges do report gifts they receive, as required under state statute."

Ment said he served on a committee several years back that updated the financial reporting rules for state judges.

"I think it's a pretty good code," he said. "I think we do a pretty good job of regulating our judicial conduct."

Young said some of the scoring, including in the gifting category, was based on "how easily that information can be accessed by the public."•

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