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Indiana gets F in judge disclosure

Group’s claim shrugged off

– Indiana earned an F in new rankings for state Supreme Court financial disclosures but was still 17th best in the nation.

That’s because 42 other states and the District of Columbia failed the Center for Public Integrity’s disclosure review. Its grading system was based on a slightly tougher version of disclosure requirements for federal judges.

The top state rank was a C for California.

“In many states, it’s practically impossible to glean any meaningful information from judges’ financial disclosures,” the study found.

Despite the lack of information in the public records though, the center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country.

None of those was in Indiana.

And Hoosiers within the system don’t seem too worried about the state’s grade, noting there have been no scandals or significant concerns raised here.

“The allegation that Indiana deserves an F took us by surprise. We believe that the rules and the code set forth a tone of openness,” said Kathryn Dolan, spokeswoman for the Indiana Supreme Court.

She noted that the grade is based on federal standards for judges with lifetime appointments. Hoosiers have the ability to retain or vote out Supreme Court judges.

“We think Indiana judges are extraordinarily responsible and forthcoming with personal data,” Dolan said.

A mix of Indiana law passed by legislators and rules passed by the judiciary govern disclosure in Indiana.

All full-time judges – not just those on the Supreme Court – must fill out an annual Statement of Economic Interests.

Among the things included on the form are any gifts received by the justice and their value; employment by the judge and spouse; direct involvement of the judge or spouse in any other businesses or corporations; any organization the judge or spouse serve on; companies the judge, spouse or adult children own at least $10,000 of stock in; any outside compensation.

Indianapolis Attorney John Trimble chairs the Judicial Improvements Committee for the Indiana State Bar Association and said no one has suggested Indiana’s standards need to be improved.

He also served for three years on the judicial qualifications commission, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.

Trimble noted that in other states where Supreme Court judges are elected, the issue of campaign contributions and financial entanglement has created a “lot of public outcry.”

But Indiana’s appellate and Supreme Court judges are chosen through a merit selection process and very rarely raise campaign funds.

He also noted that the judicial qualifications commission receives all kinds of complaints against judges – but he didn’t recall any with a financial basis. Instead, he said most are based on whether the judge is hearing a case in which he personally knows a participant.

“Most of us simply don’t have a concern about the integrity of our judges,” Trimble said.

According to the Center study, one of Indiana’s strengths in disclosure is the reporting of all gifts.

In reviewing the most recent disclosures for the five sitting Supreme Court justices, most accepted tickets to the Indianapolis 500 worth hundreds of dollars.

The study found Indiana’s weakness is that it seeks little information about the financial investments and liabilities of its high court’s jurists. The state requires judges only to name the businesses in which they or their family members own $10,000 or more worth of stock, a high threshold. Judges don’t report household debt.

Both Trimble and Dolan said they didn’t believe it was necessary to lower the amount, indicating there have been no allegations or problems in Indiana.

But Trimble did concede that it is “theoretically true” that more issues would arise if the disclosure were wider. Right now a judge could own thousands of dollars of stock in a company and decide a case directly benefiting it without anyone knowing.

Access is also an issue, though it isn’t mentioned in the report. The disclosure statements are kept in an obscure basement office at the government center complex. They are not online and Hoosiers generally have to pay to see them. Similar legislative statements are online in the Indiana House but not the Indiana Senate.

Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and doesn’t recall any movement toward stricter disclosure for judges.

“If they have a conflict you have to believe they will step away and recuse themselves,” she said. “I am comfortable they will.”

Glick is an attorney.

“It’s just not an issue here. If there are abuses we would see them.”

nkelly@jg.net

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