The California judiciary on Thursday adopted rule changes that will require courts to disclose all financial settlements involving judges accused of misconduct.
The Judicial Council approved the amendments to Rule of Court 10.500 with little discussion and none of the previous criticism from some judges that the mandate was too broad. The rule change goes into effect June 1.
“It is not the first time that we’ve acted with alacrity on issues that needed to be clarified,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said at Thursday’s meeting. “This is important for us, and it is something that received a lot of input rather quickly. But I’m grateful that we are having this conversation.”
The council approved the open records rule less than six weeks after Cantil-Sakauye charged a group of lawyers and judges with drafting rules that would require “all levels of the state court system” to make public financial settlements that resolve harassment or discrimination claims against judges.
The chief justice’s call for changes was in response to records requested by The Recorder and other media outlets that showed the judiciary paid $600,000 since 2011 to investigate and settle harassment claims against court employees and judges. Judiciary branch lawyers declined to name the judges involved or the allegations, citing broad protections for investigations of and claims concerning judges in Rule 10.500.
The Recorder also sought settlement records from every appellate and trial court in the state. The requests produced no settlement records. Many courts said they had no responsive documents and others cited exemptions from disclosure requirements.
The chief justice’s working group recommended rule changes that would open up all settlements involving judicial misconduct, not just those related to sexual harassment. The expanded disclosure requirements better reflect state open records laws that mandate broad disclosure of how taxpayer dollars are spent, said the group’s leader, Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Marsha Slough.
The California Judges Association said that expansion went too far. Association president Stuart Rice said at a committee meeting this month that the new rule would encourage meritless lawsuits from litigants eager to have their disputes with judges exposed. None of that criticism surfaced at Thursday’s meeting.
“I just want to thank Justice Slough and her working group and the chief for the work that we’re doing on an important issue to society and all of the people that utilize our court system,” Rice said.
It’s unclear how much information the rule changes will actually expose, particularly if settlements do not describe the misconduct in question or specifically name the accused judicial officers. Rule 10.500 continues to allow courts to withhold information about investigations into claims of judicial wrongdoing.
Slough on Thursday acknowledged “other important issues” surrounding judicial misconduct disclosures.
“We determined those were truly beyond the call of the question of the chief,” she said. “But we do raise that issue because it may well be appropriate at some point in time in the future for this Judicial Council to address those points of concern as well.”