Monday, May 5, 2008
State Judicial Accountability System Ranked Fifth Nationwide
By a MetNews Staff Writer
California’s judicial accountability system was ranked fifth in the nation in a study by HALT, Inc. released on Thursday, despite only receiving a C-plus grade overall on HALT’s “report card.”
The highest overall grade was a B, received by Washington. California ranked below Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Arizona, and just above Texas. More than half of the states earned C’s. The federal system and 14 states received D’s. Maine and Mississippi received F’s.
The grades were based on the transparency of the judicial oversight organization’s complaint process, availability of information online, availability of sanctions, layperson participation in the process, and rules regarding financial disclosure and gift restrictions.
HALT, or Help Abolish Legal Tyranny, calls itself “the nation’s largest legal reform organization, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group.” It is frequently critical of the legal profession and the courts.
Suzanne Blonder, HALT senior counsel said the study, which she said may have been to be the first comprehensive nationwide evaluation of state and federal judicial oversight committees indicated that there is a “nationwide pattern of closed-door, insular systems that are not providing adequate information about how they operate to the public.”
She praised California as “one of the least insular states,” and one of the few states with system that “invites public participation.” According to the study, California is one of only six states in which laypersons exceed the number of judges and lawyers on the Commission on Judicial Performance. Most states, Blonder said only have a “token layperson presence.”
The study also commended California’s Rules of Court which permit complainants to speak publicly about ethics complaints against judges. In contrast, 16 jurisdictions prohibit individuals from doing so, while individuals in Georgia can be held in contempt for disclosing information about a judicial ethics complaint.
As for areas of improvement, Blonder said “one area where California failed, and most states performed very poorly” was in gift restrictions. The study faulted the state for failing to place limitations on reimbursements and compensation that a judge may accept in combination with privately funded trips.
Blonder explained that private interests could “wine and dine” judicial officers “with no real limitations” so long as the expenditure could be tied to some sort of educational program, however tangential the relationship. She called this a “major loophole” in the state’s ethics rules.
California was also faulted for failing to publish judges’ annual financial disclosure information online and for continuing to impose private forms of discipline.
Blonder said the group plans to issue a set of recommendations and best practices based upon its study and hopes to collaborate with judicial conduct commissions across the country in order to enact meaningful reforms.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company