State earns passing grade on judicial discipline report card

By Lawrence Smith | Jul 8, 2008

CHARLESTON – West Virginians have one more reason to exclaim "Thank God for Mississippi."

A legal watchdog organization ranked the Magnolia State last in a recent survey of how the 50 states and the District of Columbia handle ethics complaints against judges.

Traditionally, West Virginia and Mississippi battle for last place in many nationwide quality-of-life rankings.

However, the Washington-based Help Abolish Legal Tyranny found the Mountain State did a much better job of policing its judiciary than Mississippi.

According to its 2008 judicial accountability report card, HALT ranked Mississippi, Maine, Louisiana, Delaware and the District of Columbia as the worst in enforcing judicial ethics. All five earned either an "F" or a "D+."

Though no state earned an "A", the state of Washington, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Arizona, California and Texas raked the best in the study. All earned a "B."

West Virginia ranked 13th overall in the study, earning a "C." Also earning "C's" where West Virginia's neighbors Maryland and Ohio, who ranked 17th and 31st, respectively.

By comparison, the state's two other neighbors, Virginia and Kentucky, fared poorly in the study, ranking 38th and 45th, respectively. Kentucky did slightly better than Virginia earning a "D +."

The good, the bad

In conducting its study, HALT graded the states in seven categories. Those were transparency, availability of meaningful sanctions, consumer friendliness, online outreach, public participation, financial disclosure and gift restrictions.

In the category of consumer friendliness, West Virginia earned an "A." Consumer friendliness was defined by what restrictions are placed on a person from publicly discussing a complaint he or she filed.

According to HALT, the state Judicial Investigation Commission places no restrictions on complainants. Along with Mississippi, both Ohio and Virginia flunked in the consumer friendliness category for gag rules contained in their respective judicial conduct codes.

With the exception of gift restrictions, West Virginia earned "C's" in the remaining categories, including public participation. By comparison, Ohio and Virginia each failed while Pennsylvania earned a "B."

The Buckeye State's Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline consists of 28 members, of which only four are laypeople. In Virginia, attorneys and judges on the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission's outnumber ordinary citizens 2-to-1.

In the Keystone State, the public has an equal voice on the Judicial Conduct Board which consists of six laypeople, three judges and three attorneys. The membership of JIC consists of nine members, three circuit judges, one family law judge, one magistrate, one mental hygiene commissioner and three laypeople.

In the category of online outreach, West Virginia could have faired better if JIC's Web site had a database of past rulings against judges, a list of upcoming hearings and a frequently asked questions section. Likewise, though the state Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to file annual financial disclosure reports, they are not available online and do not include the "economic interest" of a judge's spouse.

According to HALT, in addition to investments, gifts and board memberships, judges in Pennsylvania must file comprehensive annual financial reports that can be found online earning it a "B" in the category of financial disclosure. Though it was unclear if Mississippi placed such reports on the Web, judges there are informed as to the identity of anyone who requests to see the filings.

No state earned higher than a "D" in HALT's survey when it came to gift restrictions. Though some states like Pennsylvania prohibit the acceptance of honorarium, no restrictions are placed on what perks corporations and special-interest groups can bestow on judges, including expense-paid trips.

No comment

The fact that no state earned an overall "A" in the survey is an indictment on the weakness of judicial conduct codes that allow judges "to rule even when they have a critical conflict of interest in a case" and "concealing data and ultimately refusing to remove or meaningfully sanction even the most incompetent and abusive judges," said HALT Senior Counsel Suzanne M. Blonder. "The public has every right to be cynical about how judges are supposedly judged.

"At a time when the American public has lost faith in the impartiality and fairness of the nation's judiciary, effective oversight of state and federal judges is vital.

"It's now incumbent on our legislators as well as state and federal high courts to transform a mechanism marred by indifference and secrecy into a system dedicated to upholding the integrity of our nation's judiciary."

JIC Counsel Charles R. "Skip" Garten was asked to comment on the state's ranking in HALT's survey. Garten declined to comment, but referred questions to state Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury

Speaking through Supreme Court spokeswoman Jennifer Bundy, Canterbury also declined to comment.

"One typically can find fault with the specifics of any special interest group grading system," Bundy said. "One may rank West Virginia high and one may rank West Virginia low, so the Court does not comment on any of them."

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