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Utah Flunks on Judicial Finance Transparency

by Colby Frazier
- Posted // 2013-12-09 -

Utah is dead-last in a ranking of judicial financial transparency released last week by The Center for Public Integrity. Unlike supreme-court justices in many states, members of Utah's highest court are exempt from disclosing any personal financial information.

Utah received zero points across the board in the following categories: reporting of non-investment income, investments, gifts/reimbursements and liabilities; accountability; and accessibility.

Idaho and Montana are the only other states that don't force justices to reveal their financial interests.

Dan Becker, Utah's court administrator, said the reason justices aren't asked to file financial-interest statements has to do with how judges are appointed. Because judges are selected by a nominating commission, which is appointed by the governor, and then approved by the Senate, they don't have to campaign and therefore don't have to raise funds. Becker says the only circumstance in which a judge might have to form a campaign, and therefore file a financial-disclosure statement, would be if someone waged a campaign against that judge.

“No justice has ever had an organized campaign against him or her under the current selection process,” Becker wrote in a news release. “Accordingly, there has never been a campaign financial disclosure filed on behalf of a justice of the Supreme Court.”

The state's code of judicial conduct addresses how a judge should behave when it comes to financial interests. It even goes so far as to say a judge “shall not accept any gifts, loans, bequests, benefits, or other things of value, if acceptance is prohibited by law or would appear to a reasonable person to undermine the judge's independence, integrity, or impartiality.” It does not address how a person could come to know these things, since none of this information exists.

The Center for Public Integrity revealed in its report that, nationwide, its investigation found "35 examples of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads, as well as other entanglements" and "14 instances in the past three years in which justices participated in cases where they or their spouses owned stock in companies involved in the litigation."

In a press release, Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant pointed out that, after careful review of the code of conduct in 2009, a committee of judges “and others” made this addition: “In lieu of imposing financial reporting requirements, Utah has adopted stricter prohibitions than those proposed by the ABA's [American Bar Association] Model Code against acceptance of all gifts, loans, bequests, benefits or other things of value.”

In Utah, supreme-court justices recused themselves 15 times in 2013 while hearing 83 cases, said Nancy Volmer, a spokeswoman for Utah State Courts.

Justices in Utah are appointed to a renewable 10-year term. Justice Christine M. Durham has served on the court since 1982.

“Utah's judiciary has systems in place to ensure that judges do not hear cases when a conflict or an appearance of conflict exists,” Durrant noted, “which has worked well for our state.”

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