The financial disclosure reports that District of Columbia local judges file every summer offer insight into what they're up to when they're not on the bench — Boy Scouts leader; a singer; a church elder. What the reports don't publicly reveal — for the most part — is any financial information.
Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court and federal courts, which require judges to publicly disclose any investments and trusts, states vary regarding what financial information judges must submit — and how much the public can see.
The 1970 federal law creating the local court system in Washington required judges of the D.C. Superior Court and Court of Appeals to disclose a substantial amount of financial information each year. Most of it remains confidential, however.
The rules were modeled after Sen­ate provisions in place in 1970. Seven years later, the Senate adopted rules that would open up financial reports to public scrutiny. The District's rules never changed. The public sections of the reports filed by D.C. judges don't include information about income, investments, liabilities, gifts or expense reimbursements. What the public can see are the judges' affiliations with private organizations, charities and businesses, and honorariums received in excess of $300.
Chris Young, an American Univer­sity fellow at the Center for Public Integrity who is researching state judicial financial-disclosure rules, said the D.C. statute was unusual in requiring "extensive" disclosures but then keeping much of the information sealed. Elsewhere, information reported by judges typically is made public, he said, but states differ in how much they require judges to disclose in the first place.
In most states, Young said, the rules lean toward keeping financial information confidential, which he thought was a problem. "It's important for the public to be able to see for themselves where conflicts of interest may arise," he said.
Bill Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts, said several states cited safety as a reason for keeping information sealed. There was concern, he said, that releasing information about a judge's assets — in particular, property — would make it easier for disgruntled litigants to find judges' homes.
'EXPECTATIONS OF OPENNESS'
According to congressional records, Congress modeled the D.C. judicial financial disclosure rules on those in force in the Senate, where financial disclosure reports during the early 1970s were not public.Samuel Harahan, former executive director of local nonprofit Council for Court Excellence, said that at the time the 1970 law passed, the "environment quite frankly nationally was somewhat different than it would be 40 years later with regard to expectations of openness." The annual financial reports filed by D.C. judges are managed by the District of Columbia Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, which also investigates complaints against judges and evaluates judges up for reappointment. Most information included in the reports is available only to the person filing, the commission members and staff, or a special court convened to review the removal of a judge from the bench for misconduct.
Under the D.C. Code of Judicial Conduct, judges have to divest investments or other financial interests that might lead them to frequently recuse or create serious conflicts of interest. The rules restrict gifts and other income judges can receive. A judge who violates the rules could face disciplinary action.
"My guess is that, in making these disclosures, judges are also reminded of their ethical obligations and it acts as a check on improper judicial conduct," Chief Judge Eric Washington of the D.C. Court of Appeals said in an email.
Washington said he supported disclosures that gave the public confidence judges weren't ruling in cases in which they hold significant interests. "When the requirements go beyond serving any useful purpose along the lines discussed above and are merely being requested to provide the public with more information about a judge, for example a judge's net worth, I probably would draw the line."
All associate and senior judges on the D.C. Superior Court — where judges rotate among criminal, civil and other divisions — and Court of Appeals file the annual financial reports. There were 109 reports filed to date this year.
A number of judges sat on the boards of charitable institutions and places of worship. Many were involved with bar and judicial associations. The Council for Court Excellence was one of the most popular groups, with eight judges reporting that they served on the board.
In addition to his day job leading the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, Washington listed that he moonlights as a scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 544.
Superior Court Judge Robert Rigsby also reported being involved with the Boy Scouts. Since 2010, he has organized a law camp and mentoring program for local students through a charter from the National Council of Boy Scouts of America. Having grown up going to a boys' club in Northern California, Rigsby said, "It's been one of the proudest things I've done."
Several judges were involved in the arts. Court of Appeals Senior Judge John Terry listed that he's a member of the Washington Men's Camerata, a choral group, and sits on the organization's board of directors. Terry couldn't be reached for comment but, according to the group's website, he sings in the bass section.
Only one judge listed receiving an honorarium of more than $300: Super­ior Court Senior Judge John Bayly Jr. Bayly earned $1,420 for presenting a lecture to Chinese prosecutors and judges during a conference at Georgetown University. Bayly said he "explained criminal law and procedure."
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.