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Editorial Advisory Board: Judicial disclosure forms should be complete, online

This newspaper recently reported that the judges on the Maryland Court of Appeals are not required to disclose their net worth. We feel that there is no public policy to be served by requiring state judges to disclose their net worth. On the other hand, in two respects, the current judicial disclosure requirements are inadequate and should be reformed.

Section 15-610 of the State Government Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland mandates that the Court of Appeals adopt rules requiring state judges to file annual statements of financial interests in order to “promote continued trust and confidence in the integrity of the Judicial Branch.” The Court of Appeals accordingly has promulgated a disclosure form, and Maryland Rule 16-815 requires each state judge to file it annually with the State Court Administrator.

The required disclosure form asks for detailed disclosures about real property holdings, interests held by the judge in corporations and other business entities, any gifts received during the past year, other offices held and compensation received, loans owed, leadership positions in non-profit organizations, and employment held by other members of the judge’s immediate family. It strikes us that all of these disclosures are appropriate in that the information disclosed might be relevant to counsel considering whether or not to file a motion seeking recusal of a judge due to a conflict of interest between the judge and a party to or the facts presented in a particular case.

In contrast with the reasonable disclosures requested by the official form, we cannot envision how information about a judge’s net worth would have any relevance to whether the judge should sit in judgment on a case. Whether a judge is wealthy, less wealthy or not at all wealthy should have no relevance to any case that might come before a court.

There are two respects, however, in which we feel that the current disclosure requirements are insufficient.

First, the filed disclosure forms are not available for on-line viewing. Currently, the only way that the filed forms can be reviewed is through a personal visit to the office of the State Court Administrator and a perusal of forms contained in file cabinets there. For an attorney with an upcoming trial or appeal in which there is a concern about a possible conflict of interest involving the judge assigned to the case or the appeal, the inconvenience of a trip to Annapolis is an unacceptable obstacle. In this second decade of the 21st Century, the filed disclosure forms should be available on-line.

Second, the instructions for completing the disclosure forms state that if the requested information has been disclosed in a prior year, the judge need only write “no change” on the form. Many judges opt to use “no change” rather than to fully complete the forms. This then forces those who have made the trip to Annapolis to spend time reviewing not just a judge’s most recent year’s disclosure form but also the disclosure forms filed in past years.

In some cases, judges have been writing “no change” on their disclosure forms for many years, thus forcing attorneys concerned about potential conflicts of interest to spend hours in the State Court Administrator’s office reviewing disclosure forms filed as many as 10 or 20 years ago. Surely, it is not too much to ask of our judges that each year they completely fill out their entire disclosure form.

Not only do our suggested changes make practical sense, but we believe that they would improve the system of justice in Maryland. Enabling attorneys to identify a potential judicial conflict prior to the start of a trial or an appeal would be far preferable to running the risk that the conflict would come to light later on. In such an event, at a minimum, there would be embarrassment, and there might even be a need to re-try the case or to re-argue the appeal.

Editorial Advisory Board member Frederic N. Smalkin did not participate in this opinion.

Editorial Advisory Board

James B. Astrachan

Chair Laurel Albin

John Bainbridge

Neil Duke

Eric Easton

Arthur F. Fergenson

Elizabeth Kameen

Wesley D. Blakeslee

C. William Michaels

William Reynolds

Frederic Smalkin

Norman Smith

H. Mark Stichel

Christopher West