Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Disclosure' Category

HI Legislature Supports Disclosure of Judicial Finalists’ Names

Both chambers of Hawaii’s legislature have passed, with no dissenting votes, a proposed constitutional amendment to require disclosure of the names recommended by a judicial screening commission for appointment as judges.

Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, reported on the legislative action. Proponents of the measure say the public deserves to know the finalists’ names, while opponents contend an attorney’s practice can be harmed if it is known publicly that he or she is aspiring to the bench.

In November, voters will consider the proposed constitutional amendment, Gavel to Gavel said, as well as another that would raise from 70 to 80 the mandatory retirement age for judges.


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Unprecedented Financial Disclosure by Candidates for S.C. Chief Justice

On Wednesday, the South Carolina General Assembly will decide an historic election, according to The State newspaper, by voting to keep state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal in her post or by electing Associate Justice Costa Pleicones to succeed her.

It is the first time in  memory that an associate justice has challenged a chief justice for the seat. It is unprecedented that the candidates have publicly released details of income sources and assets, a step they took voluntarily, the newspaper said.

Greg Adams, a University of South Carolina School of Law ethics professor, said that regardless of who wins the election, the public has gained by the candidates’ disclosure.

“This should become the norm for all state judges,” Adams said. “When people have their lives and fortunes at stake in court, it is important for them to know the judge on their case is impartial and doesn’t have any financial ties that might appear to jeopardize that independence.”

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Washington Post Publishes JAS Letter Calling for Disclosure

In a letter to the editor published by The Washington Post, Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg made a strong appeal for states with judicial elections to adopt robust disclosure laws. The letter also mentioned a recent, comprehensive report on spending in judicial elections coauthored by Justice at Stake with two partner organizations.

“Americans worry that justice is for sale,” Brandenburg wrote. “Voters have a right to know who is paying to put judges on their courts, and states that elect judges should immediately enact strong, real-time disclosure- ­reporting laws so that special-interest spending in judicial elections is forced into the sunlight.”

The letter noted a Post editorial, “Dark money labyrinth,” for urging that big political spenders who hide behind a veil of secrecy in federal elections change their ways and exercise transparency instead. The editorial identified a “labyrinth” of hidden political spending in federal elections, and Brandenburg discussed a parallel development in numerous states that often is overlooked:

 ”A surge in independent spending is invading the election of state supreme court justices, and much of it comes from hidden sources. According to a report we recently co-authored, ‘New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12,’ special-interest groups spent an unprecedented $15.4 million on TV ads and other election materials in state Read more

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Spotlight Cast on Dark Money, and Seeking Political Control in States

A rising tide of political “dark money” — that is, cash whose sources are hidden — was spotlighted by two leading U.S. newspapers in recent days. A lengthy New York Times article examined a growing national strategy behind the funding of numerous successful efforts to win political party monopolies in states, and the frequent funneling to states of money from secret donors; while a Washington Post editorial urged donor transparency.

In the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12” report it coauthored last fall, Justice at Stake similarly underscored similar trends, especially the use of money from hidden donors, in state judicial elections:

“Many of the top-spending special interest groups in 2011-12 shrouded their agendas and donor lists in secrecy. …Efforts to delve deeper by looking into the ‘donors’ donors’ result in varying degrees of additional clarity. In many cases, reviewing donor lists is like peeling back the layers of an onion, as the next level of contributors contains names of more umbrella groups. In other cases, attempting to go deeper leads to a dead end, as weak state disclosure laws and provisions of the federal tax code allow donors to avoid scrutiny.”

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Law Dean Laments New Anti-Disclosure Law in Michigan

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent signing into law of a measure that exempts “issue ads” from disclosure has the effect of making it easier for special interests to influence government and making it harder “for the rest of us,” an election law expert says.

Jocelyn Benson (photo), interim dean for the Wayne State Law School, voiced her opinion in a Detroit News op-ed.  The law has special implications for continuing anonymity of big spenders on judicial elections.

Benson noted, “In 2012, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network estimated that donors poured over 14 million dollars into ads attempting to influence our vote in the Michigan Supreme Court race.” Read more

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Michigan Governor Signs What Critics Call ‘Dark Money’ Bill

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (photo) has signed into law controversial legislation that would exempt disclosure of spending for “issue ads” and would double individual campaign contribution limits, according to

Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Justice at Stake partner organization, wrote a letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press that protested, “Gov. Snyder’s support of dark money taints his legacy.”

At, Snyder defended the legislation in an op-ed entitled, “New law increases transparency, upholds cornerstone of electoral system.” Read more

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JAS Partner Group Urges Veto of ‘Dark Money’ Bill in Michigan

Michigan’s legislature has sent to Gov. Rick Snyder controversial campaign finance legislation that would exempt disclosure of spending for “issue ads” and would double individual campaign contribution limits.

In The Detroit Free Press, Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network wrote a commentary urging Snyder to veto the measure. If the bill becomes law, Robinson said, it “would enable dark money to dominate Michigan’s political campaigns for the foreseeable future.”

According to Robinson, since 2003, “Undisclosed campaign ads masquerading as issue ads have … dominated every competitive state campaign. Over half of all spending in Michigan Supreme Court campaigns since 2004 has been off the books — including 75% of the spending in the 2012 campaign. … The statistical truth is that we don’t know half of who is funding our most important campaigns — or how those donors are rewarded.” Read more

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Atlantic: When Judges are not Immune to Money Interests

An Atlantic online article spotlights massive spending on state judicial elections — as highlighted by Justice at Stake — and some judges’ assets that may pose a conflict of interest as twin threats to fair and impartial courts.

The article is headlined, “How America’s Judges Are Being Bought Out: We think of courts as being immune to money interests. Some of them, as disclosure reports for state Supreme Court judges reveal, are not.” It focuses on a Center for Public Integrity report this week that gave 42 states and the District of Columbia failing grades as a part of an evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges (see Gavel Grab).

The article also provides a link to the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12” report compiled by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The article states:

“In recent years, some judicial elections have begun to look just like political campaigns, complete with attack ads, political action committees, and millions of dollars in fundraising for candidates. The financial involvement of special-interest groups in state Supreme Court races across the country has blurred the boundaries between money and politics and justice, alarming citizens and ethicists alike.”

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Broad Coverage for Report on Judges and Disclosure

A report by the Center for Public Integrity that evaluates financial disclosure levels of judges on states’ highest courts (see Gavel Grab) has continued to make a big media splash across the country.

The report gave 42 states and the District of Columbia failing grades for judicial disclosure requirements, saying this made it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench.

In the (Jackson, Ms.) Clarion Ledger, Jimmie Gates discussed the report and called for strong requirements to help ensure impartial courts:

“If we care about a fair and impartial judiciary, we need to ensure that judges report any gifts they receive and whether they have any interest in any company that may have come before the court. We hope judges will always do the honorable thing Read more

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New Report Evaluates Disclosure Requirements for Judges

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received failing grades from the Center for Public Integrity as a part of an evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges.  The Center found 35 examples of questionable gifts as well as caseloads that coincided with investments.  Though a few did better than the others, no state was able to earn an A or a B mark.

Even with limited information available the three years of personal finance disclosures investigated created a varied list of questionable activity.    This activity included judges that authored favorable opinions of companies they owned stock in along with other justices accepting lavish gifts from lawyers.  Enforcement of disclosure rules was also found to be problematic with 12 states relying on justices to enforce the ethics rules of the courts on themselves.

So far, the report has gotten media attention in states that received unfavorable marks including a piece on Nevada’s evaluation from the Las Vegas Sun.  For the full list of state grades, click here.

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