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National Group Flunks State For Court Justices' Financial Disclosure

Vermont has received a failing grade from a national advocacy group that says the state doesn’t require Supreme Court justices to disclose enough financial information.

This is the first time the Washington D.C. based Center For Public Integrity has looked at financial disclosure requirements for state Supreme Court justices – and it found most states lacking.

The center measured the states against what is required for U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

Vermont and more than 40 other state received an “F” grade for what they require of their justices.

Reity O’Brien, a reporter for the center, says better disclosure rules are important because state Supreme Court justices have considerable influence.

“They can overturn state statutes, they can reject multi-million dollar verdicts and in states that have capital punishment, they can decide whether a death row inmate lives or dies. So these people have a lot of power,” she says.

"[In] a small state like Vermont with an even smaller legal community, the likelihood for ethically compromising conflicts of interest is even higher than a bigger state." - Reity O’Brien, Center for Public Integrity

O’Brien says the public has a right to know if there are financial conflicts.

Vermont Supreme Court justices file disclosure statements annually.  The forms require them to list compensation from non-judicial activities and report gifts to their household with a value of more than $150.

O’Brien says that’s not enough.

“Vermont justices don’t have to disclose anything about their debts; what they might owe their creditors. Also, Vermont justices don’t have to disclose the income or investments received by their spouse or dependent children,” O’Brien says.

She cites Vermont’s size as one reason stronger financial disclosure rules are needed.

“A small state like Vermont with an even smaller legal community; the likelihood for ethically compromising conflicts of interest is even higher than a bigger state,” O’Brien says.

She says the justices’ disclosure forms aren’t readily available to the public because they’re not posted online.

The Center For Public Integrity survey does not distinguish between those states where justices are elected, or those like Vermont where they’re appointed.

Nor does it differentiate between states where justices serve for life and the Vermont system where they must be re-confirmed by the legislature every six years.

Barre Republican Representative Tom Koch, who chairs the Joint Committee On Judicial Retention,  which reviews the performance of Vermont judges, says those distinctions are important.

Koch says there is enough oversight to avoid conflicts.  He says his committee has access to more detailed financial information than the public disclosure forms require.

“There is a confidential file that includes financial information that the members of the committee can review. The ones that I’ve seen are very boring,” says Koch.

Koch says the confidential information lists a justice's debts and liabilities, although it doesn’t have a detailed accounting of assets like stocks.

Public advocacy groups in Vermont are generally satisfied with the requirements for the state’s Supreme Court justices.

"It's not something that most folks are deeply concerned about in part because they [justices] are put into office through a merit-based process that seems to a large extent uncontroversial in Vermont." - Paul Burns, Vermont Public Interest Research Group

“It’s not something that most folks are deeply concerned about in part because they are put into office through a merit-based process that seems to a large extent uncontroversial in Vermont,” says Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Burns says the increasing influence of money in politics makes it much more important for the state to adopt financial disclosure laws for candidates for statewide office.

Allen Gilbert of the American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont agrees.

He says the ACLU is concentrating its efforts on financial disclosure requirements for elected officials, not justices. But Gilbert says the more disclosure the better.  Without it, he says, the public is in the dark.

“People are trusting on the theory that Vermont’s a small state and ultimately nobody can keep a secret from anybody else.  We might be avoiding an uncomfortable reality that suggests it really isn’t true,” Gilbert says.

The financial disclosure requirements that apply to Vermont judges, including Supreme Court justices, are contained in the state’s Code Of Judicial Conduct, which is based on the American Bar Association’s guidelines.

A Judicial Conduct Board appointed by the Vermont Supreme Court reviews the justices’ disclosure forms and handles complaints against judges in Vermont.

Questions are raised periodically about a justice’s ability render an impartial decision in a case, and justices sometimes recuse themselves.

Generally the reasons have to do with work a justice did prior to sitting on the bench, or a friendship with an attorney appearing before the court.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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