CHARLESTON – In a follow-up to its judicial accountability report card, the legal watchdog group Help Abolish Legal Tyranny recently released a 10 best practices list.
Along with each area, HALT also listed the state which best embodies those practices to make judicial discipline more transparent, rigorous and publicly accessible:
1. Release information about a judicial ethics complaint at the conclusion of a preliminary investigation.
* Regardless if it is dismissed or referred for formal charges, any complaint filed with the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission in Arkansas is made public.
2. Replace closed-door sanctions against judges with formal, public discipline.
* Nine states, including Arizona, Iowa, Oregon and Washington, have eliminated private, closed-door disciplinary proceedings, and made all findings a matter of public record.
3. Provide conduct commissions with the authority to impose a wide range of public sanctions to address a broad spectrum of judicial transgressions.
* Indiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico are among the states that offer the widest range of sanctions.
4. Remove abusive judges from the bench.
* In 2007, only nine judges nationwide were removed from the bench. The supreme courts of California, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia upheld removal of judges "who engaged in egregious, disturbing and persistent patterns of abuse."
5. Clarify that complainants and witnesses have the right to speak freely about a judge's misconduct and disciplinary proceedings.
* Only nine states impose a "gag" order on citizens filing a judicial complaint. Three states, Alabama, Arizona and Tennessee, not only defer to the First Amendment in citizens discussing complaints, but also go a step further by informing them they are exempt from any confidentiality requirement.
6. Host an easily navigable Web site that provides clear information about how to file an ethics complaint against a judge and allows the public to search for a judge's disciplinary action.
* Among the information a Web site should include are a clear explanation of the disciplinary process, a downloadable complaint form, past commission rulings and links to ethics standards. The judicial commissions of Michigan, Nevada and Washington state all contain this information. In fact, Nevada's Commission on Judicial Discipline provides detailed information and directions to upcoming judicial conduct hearings.
7. Give ordinary citizens a meaningful role on the panels that decide complaints against members of the judiciary.
* In most judicial oversight systems, judges and lawyers outnumber laypeople. However, in California, Hawaii, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Washington state, laypeople outnumber judges and lawyers. In fact, in Hawaii judges have no seats on that state's Commission on Judicial Conduct.
8. Require judges to annually file comprehensive financial disclosure reports.
* Thirteen states either by judicial code of conduct or statute require judges, and their spouses and dependants to disclose their economic interests including outside employment, compensation, board affiliations, investments and real property. Among the states that require this level of disclosure are Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Washington state.
9. Guarantee convenient and affordable public access to judges' financial disclosures.
* Ideally, court administrators should allow the public the option of viewing such information either at the local courthouse or online. Also, any person requesting such information should be allowed to do so without having his or her identity disclosed to the judge with copy fees less than $.50 per page. Arkansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Dakota provide this level of access and protection.
10. Place clear limitations on the gifts that judges can receive in connection with privately sponsored trips.
* No state places a monetary cap on the compensation and reimbursements judges may receive for attending a privately funded trip though some states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, Maryland and Minnesota prohibit judges from accepting honorarium.