Are judges above the law?
Of course not.
Unless they decide to be.
And they have decided to be when it comes to filing their financial disclosure forms.
Maryland law requires public officials to file financial disclosure forms annually, but the Maryland Judiciary decided 37 years ago to hold itself to a different, less onerous standard. As we reported last year and again this month, judges don’t need to list what they own and what they owe, as other public officials do. Instead, judges need only disclose what’s changed.
What’s the difference? Just ask your banker how much you can borrow if you disclose only that your finances haven’t changed.
Surely the public’s faith in an impartial Judiciary is worth more than, say, a used car, but you wouldn’t know it from some judges’ disclosures.
Even Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the highest-ranking judge on the highest court of the state, has failed to disclose two of his investments on every form filed since 1990. In fact, for more than a decade now, the chief judge has decided to list his corporate holdings as Items 1, 2, 3 and 4 and, in each of seven categories, including the corporation names, describe them as “no change.”
This is not disclosure, clearly, but is it even legal?
It must be legal, because the judges say it is. And who is there to say otherwise?
After last year’s article by The Daily Record on this subject, there were murmurings in the General Assembly about a move to standardize the rules across the branches of government and to require all financial disclosure forms to go online.
That didn’t happen this year, but a few other things did.
To the Judiciary’s credit, the process of tracking down the decades-old forms was much easier this year. Last year, it required a five-month scavenger hunt through the courts’ long-term storage system.
This year, the director of administrative services was expecting our call, knew where the old forms were and was able to produce them with just a few phone calls and a few trips to Annapolis.
More importantly, two of the Court of Appeals’ seven judges told The Daily Record’s Steve Lash that the high court is weighing a change to the “no change” rule.
“It’s an ongoing dialogue,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell said.
That’s encouraging, but it seems to us there is very little to discuss. In fact, it boils down to just one question: Are judges above the law?