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Judges’ Financial Disclosures Found Lacking

DALLAS (CN) - The Texas judiciary got an "F" from the Center for Public Integrity for the state's and its judges' level of required financial disclosures - as did more than 40 other states.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization announced its findings Wednesday.

After evaluating disclosure rules for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, it flunked 43 for failing to require adequate disclosures from elected officials.

" Texas' financial disclosures are notable for a couple of key loopholes," the Center for Public Integrity said.

"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."

The study cites lax ethics rules regarding Texas Rep. Linda Harper-Brown's, R-Irving, failure to disclose she was driving a $56,000 Mercedes-Benz provided to her husband by a state contractor in exchange for accounting services.

She did not report it "because her husband possessed 'actual control' of the car," the Center for Public Integrity said. "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."

Texas scored 40 points out of 100 in the study, ranking it 32nd, alongside Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Montana, Idaho and Utah tied for last with zero points each.

California ranked first among state with 77 points - it got a "C."

The federal judiciary scored 84 points and got a "B."

Judges in Texas are required to report gift amounts only if they are in cash or a cash equivalent, such as gift certificates.

They are not required to disclose the exact value of their investments. The disclosure forms require only that they select the number of shares they own in one of six ranges.

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court told the Center for Public Integrity that while it would be hard to report exact amounts, narrower ranges might improve the disclosure form.

"If the media finds you off 10 cents, they might make a big deal of it," Hecht said. "I do think the categories are pretty broad."

Former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson disclosed owning stock in more than 200 publicly traded companies in 2012.

Jefferson said the idea of recusing himself each time such a company appeared before the high court was "far-fetched," the Center for Public Integrity said.

Jefferson told the Center that the disclosed stocks 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," Jefferson said.

The study did note some strengths of the state's disclosure rules: that state supreme court justices must 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," the Center said. "Justices must also disclose their real estate interests."

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