The Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. The level of disclosure in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was poor, with 43 receiving failing grades, making it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench. Despite the lack of information in the public records, the Center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country. Here’s what the Center found in Texas:
how it ranks
total score: 40/100
Texas asks its Supreme Court justices to disclose at least some information in each category the Center analyzed. Unlike most states, Texas judges must report investment income, transactions and the number of shares they own in an individual company’s stock. Justices must also disclose their real estate interests.
Texas’ financial disclosures are notable for a couple of key loopholes. While judges are required to disclose their family members’ financial interests, the reporting instructions advise judges to report information about their spouse and dependent children only if the filer has “actual control over that financial activity.” That “actual control” language has been the subject of controversy. For example, state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown did not disclose that she was driving a $56,000 Mercedes-Benz — provided to her husband by a state contractor in exchange for accounting services — because her husband possessed “actual control” of the car. If “actual control” was not included as a caveat in the state reporting requirements, Texas’ score would have been 18 points higher, according to the Center’s calculations.
Judges are required to report gift amounts only if they are in the form of cash or a cash equivalent, such as a gift certificate. Additionally, judges do not report the exact value of their investment holdings. Instead, they indicate the number of shares they own in six ranges. Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told the Center that while it would be difficult to report in exact amounts — “If the media finds you off 10 cents, they might make a big deal of it” — narrower value ranges might improve the form. “I do think the [value] categories are pretty broad,” Hecht said.
One now-retired justice reported a stock portfolio as vast and diverse as the Lone Star State itself. In 2012, Wallace Jefferson disclosed owning stock in more than 200 publicly-traded companies, ranging from Texas-based oil-and-gas titan Exxon Mobil to wholesale club Costco. Though many of the companies featured in Jefferson’s stock portfolio could potentially appear before the Texas Supreme Court, Jefferson said the argument to recuse in each instance is “far-fetched.” Jefferson — who retired from the bench in October — told the Center that while he disclosed those more than 200 stocks individually, they are part of a retirement account managed by Merrill Lynch, which he acquired while in private practice before he joined the court. “I don’t know what I’m doing in the financial arena, so I let the experts do it,” he said.
Read the 2012 reports
Wallace B. Jefferson
Nathan L. Hecht
Paul W. Green
Don R. Willett
Jeffrey S. Boyd
John Phillip Devine
After he resigned from the Texas Supreme Court in September, Wallace Jefferson was replaced by Nathan Hecht as the court’s chief justice. Hecht’s associate seat was soon filled by Jeff Brown, a Houston-based district judge appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. The Center for Public Integrity has posted the 2012 financial disclosures for all three judges.
How Texas scored
Is the judge required to disclose his/her household income?
Is the judge required to disclose investments (including real estate) for judge, spouse and dependent children?
Is the judge required to disclose gifts and reimbursements given to the judge, spouse and dependent children?
Is the judge required to disclose liabilities of judge, spouse and dependent children?
Are judges held accountable for filing?
Can members of the public easily access records?
Source: Center for Public Integrity analysis of state records, laws. See methodology for details.
Last December, the California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by a couple who had accused financial giant Wells Fargo & Co. of predatory lending.
One justice, who owned stock in the bank, recused himself from the case. But Justice Kathryn Werdegar, who owned as much as $1 million of Wells Fargo stock, participated — and shouldn’t have.
The Center for Public Integrity learned of Werdegar’s financial stake thanks to California’s relatively strong financial reporting requirements for justices. But California’s law is an exception.
Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received a failing grade in a Center evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges. And not a single state earned an A or a B.
Yet despite the dearth of information, the Center still found 35 examples of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads as well as other entanglements.
After reviewing three years of personal financial disclosures, the Center found judges who authored opinions favoring companies in which they owned stock. The Center found judges who ruled on cases even when family members were receiving income from one of the parties. And it found judges who accepted lavish gifts — like a $50,000 trip from a lawyer.
The Center also found that enforcement of disclosure rules is spotty. Twelve states, for example, rely on self-policing disciplinary bodies — made up of high-court justices themselves — to enforce the courts’ ethics rules.
Much has been made of the potential 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.