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Vermont judges share sparse financial disclosures, others report thousands in rental income streams

Close up of the gold dome on the Vermont Statehouse against a blue sky.
Vermont Public
Abagael Giles
The gold dome of the Vermont Statehouse.

Financial disclosure documents spanning the past four years raise questions about transparency and accountability within the state judicial system’s reporting requirements, according to data obtained by Community News Service.

The disclosure documents, sourced from annual Vermont Judiciary statements between 2019 and 2022 for state superior and supreme court judges, indicate judges in recent years have provided scant information about their incomes — in part because Vermont does not require them to say much.

There has been a substantial rise in judges reporting nothing since 2019 from 31% of judges that year to 49% in 2022. In the vast majority of cases, those judges checked boxes indicating they had no financial disclosures to make under the law, and only in a handful of cases did judges not specify disclosures despite indicating they had something to report. Over the four years of data, an average of 42% of judges who submitted forms said they had no required financial disclosures.

The trend poses potential for concern regarding the completeness and reliability of disclosed financial information in those annual forms, compared to other states.

The only investments Vermont judges are required to publicly report are ones over $5,000, according to the state’s judicial conduct code. When that mark is hit — and the investment is relevant to a case before them — judges are supposed to tell the parties in the case about the conflict of interest.

In neighboring New Hampshire, judicial financial disclosure statement forms are considerably more inclusive, asking the source of spousal income, if the judge sits on any charitable organization boards and requiring judges to list any gifts or free event invitations, without the same $500 value minimum and family exemption that Vermont’s form has.

According to the national Center for Public Integrity, Vermont is one of only 12 states that solely relies on self-policing mechanisms to enforce financial disclosure rules for judges. In Vermont, that mechanism is the Judicial Conduct Board. The board comprises three attorneys, three members of the public and three judges who enforce the code, which is set by state supreme court justices.

Judicial Conduct Board Chair Barbara Blackman did not answer requests for comment. Vice Chair Merrill Bent declined to comment during the reporting of this story after having been presented with the reporter’s key findings. Post publication, Bent disputed elements of the story.

Data from the disclosures, obtained via a public records request, show another pattern that has raised concerns among some in Vermont activist circles: Among judges who did report required finances, several have received considerable supplemental income from rental properties.

Eleven judges reported supplemental rental income over the past four years, totaling $341,953 from 2019 to 2022. While some judges only reported a couple thousand in rental income annually, other judges reported over $20,000 in some years: Harold Eaton Jr., John Pacht, Beth Robinson and Lisa Warren.

The standout earners in rental income in 2022 were Warren, who reported earning $40,453, and Pacht, who reported $31,884. Warren reported co-owning a rental property with her husband that had six listed tenants in Caledonia County, documents from 2022 show. Pacht reported his income had come from a Queens, New York, property. Pacht wrote “don’t know” in a form line asking the identity of his tenant.

That supplemental real estate income came on top of state salaries of $176,421 for both Warren and Pacht in 2022, according to the Vermont Transparency Project.

Pacht did not answer several voicemail messages left by a reporter seeking comment. Messages left with court staff for Warren received no response.

While there is nothing in the Judicial Code of Conduct against rental income as long as it is reported as outside income on the forms, some tenant rights activists worry about possible conflicts of interest.

Will Keeton, an organizer with Burlington Tenants United, said the group believes some judges’ notable rental income could compromise their ability to fairly handle disputes between tenants and landlords.

“We can’t rely on the courts to rule in favor of tenants that are being abused by their landlords if the judges are landlords themselves,” Keeton told Community News Service in an interview.

Tenant-landlord disputes are a common civil case brought before state judges, and Keeton said the data collected by Community News Service reaffirms how the “legal system antagonizes the working class.”

Keeton added later, “It’s just very inaccessible for most tenants to even get a foot into the legal system. You can’t afford a lawyer, you can’t afford the court fees. It’s super confusing and bureaucratic to navigate … It just can’t really be used by the people to resolve their situations.”

About whether a judge receiving a rental income is a conflict of interest, Keeton said: “It definitely seems like something that might impact the ruling” and said judges should be required to disclose that before taking cases related to housing.

Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont branch of the American Civil Liberties Union each declined to comment for this story.

Vermont’s judicial disclosures are available to the public only upon request. Legislators in other states have started shifting that process to make the information more accessible.

Last spring, the New York State Senate passed a judicial accountability and transparency package that, among other things, would require state judicial financial disclosures to be publicly posted online and freely accessible without request. The bill died in the New York State Assembly and was sent back, however.

“The judiciary must be accountable to the public,” said David Sachar, director of the Center for Ethics at the National Center for State Courts.

“Judges should be subject to scrutiny when it comes to ensuring the public that a judge is not beholden to any outside interest,” Sachar said. “You cannot have a proper ‘independent’ judiciary if that same body is not accountable to matters that uphold the principles of integrity, competence and fundamental fairness.”

As discussions surrounding judicial accountability gain momentum nationally, with highly visible examinations of the finances of U.S. Supreme Court justices last year, judicial disclosure requirements in Vermont remain murky in comparison with other states.

“The public must be confident that they have independent, competent and honest judges,” Sachar said.

The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

Corrected: March 4, 2024 at 8:37 AM EST
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described omissions in financial disclosure forms filed by state superior court judges and supreme court justices. A review of documents showed that more than 40% of respondents indicated they had no required disclosures — not that the respondents had left forms blank apart from signatures. In addition, descriptions of disclosures — and details of the financial reporting process — have been recast to make clear any omissions were not purposeful.
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