Report gives SC an ‘F’ for disclosure of judges' finances

jself@thestate.comDecember 4, 2013 

South Carolina received an “F” – along with 42 other states – for its rules governing the personal financial information that state Supreme Court justices are required to disclose publicly in a new report.

The report, released Wednesday by the Center for Public Integrity, contained some good news for the Palmetto State, saying it is one of only two states that received a perfect score for requiring judges to report the sources, amounts and descriptions of gifts and travel reimbursements that they receive.

But, overall, the report found the state’s judicial disclosure rules lacking.

The report focused on laws governing states’ highest courts.

South Carolina is one of 10 states that does not ask Supreme Court justices – or any other state judges – about their investments, financial liabilities or the employment of their spouses, according to the report.

That information could reveal conflicts of interests that judges have, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit news organization.

The center’s report did not give the state credit for more detailed financial disclosures that judges are required to file when they are up for election by, in South Carolina, the Legislature.

Because of that omission, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal called the study “very flawed.”

“That is a viewpoint shared by every chief justice in the country,” Toal said Tuesday of the report, which she said she already had seen.

The rules of the S.C. Judicial Department, which oversees the state’s courts, require judges to file annual disclosures with that department. The center obtained the documents, which are public, from the Judicial Department for the state Supreme Court’s five justices.

Those reports include information about a judge’s non-court-related compensation, whether a judge has served as a trustee or fiduciary over an estate belonging to someone other than a family member, and details on gifts, favors or loans that judges or family members living in their household have received.

That annual disclosure does not ask for a spouse’s income, investments or financial liabilities.

But some of that information is reported in another disclosure that judges must file when they run for election or stand for re-election, which for Supreme Court justices is every 10 years.

Toal said the frequency with which judges file more detailed financial disclosures is tied to state ethics laws, which the General Assembly has the authority to change.

“That could certainly be looked at,” she said, adding no one in the state Legislature has ever asked her about the requirements.

Toal objected to the evaluation not giving the state credit for the in-depth disclosure required under state law when a judge is running for election, by the Legislature, or seeking reappointment.

“If they’re going to be passing judgment” – which the center has the right to do, she said – “then they ought to do the necessary research.”

Public Integrity’s report also said the more detailed disclosures, called statements of economic interest, were “largely unavailable to the public” – another reason why the state received low marks.

Judges file hard copies of their statements of economic interest with the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee, said Cathy Hazelwood, general counsel for the S.C. Ethics Commission. Other public officials, required to file disclosures annually, file directly online with the Ethics Commission, she said.

The Senate committee gives the judicial filings to the Ethics Commission, where they are available for four years through a public records’ request, Hazelwood said.

In Public Integrity’s ratings, South Carolina tied for 32nd among the 50 states – with Texas, Georgia and Mississippi.

California received the highest score of any state – 77 – followed by Maryland at 72.5, both “C.”

State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, a member of the state’s Judicial Merit Selection Commission, told The (Charleston) Post and Courier that there are rules of conduct all state judges must follow that would require them to recuse themselves from a case in the event they have a conflict of interest.

“It’s not just the wild, wild West with judges sitting there unimpeded, making rulings on cases that they may have an interest with,” Campsen said. “There are protections in place.”

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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