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Editorial: ‘No change’ is no disclosure

Thirty-six years ago, the Maryland Judiciary treated itself to a financial disclosure shortcut. Rather than filling out all those pesky boxes on their annual Statements of Financial Interest, judges gave themselves the option of listing only what had changed from the previous filing.

For those judges who take it to its literal extreme, the “no change” option is less a shortcut than an escape route.

Take, for example, the chief judge of the state’s highest court. As The Daily Record reported Monday, Robert M. Bell’s current disclosure form lists his real estate holdings as 1, 2 and 3 and his corporate investments as 1, 2, 3 and 4.

A Swiss banker would be proud.

What (the disclosure form asks) is this asset? What is your interest in it? How did you acquire it, and from whom? Do you share ownership with anyone else?

“No change,” the response comes. “No change. No change. No change.”

No change from what? No change since when?

Those details are public record in theory, but in fact they are available only to those who are willing and able to trace the disclosure statements year by year by year, relying on the good graces of a court employee to locate and retrieve them from four increasingly remote sites — all in the hope of finding the right form, the one with actual details.

For one property owned by Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene Jr., the right form was filed in 1988, when he was a public defender, and was stored in his personal filing cabinet.

This is not disclosure. This is a labyrinth. It is a scavenger hunt conducted on the public’s time and at the public’s expense.

The fact that it has gone on since 1975 does not excuse it. In fact, it should shame all of us.

The current judges of the Court of Appeals, who inherited the shortcut, have the power to change it. And the fix is not difficult.

While we agree with those who have called for online posting of financial disclosure forms, our first concern is content.

People in other branches of government make do without the Judiciary’s “no change” option. Some judges, too, fill out the Statement of Financial Interest in commendable detail. There is no reason to hold any judge to a lesser standard.

If the Judiciary wants to keep the “no change” option, it can do so — but whenever the option is used, it should require the filer to attach either a master list or the last form on which the asset was described.

That is far less effort than the judges demand of the public now. Unlike the public, the judge starts with the knowledge of where and what the assets are, when the last changes occurred and where to find a copy of the relevant years’ forms.

The public starts only with the right to public information.

The duty of disclosure, like the financial interests that trigger it, belongs to the judges. The “no change” option is a dereliction of that duty.