The Center for Public Integrity rewarded California this week for being one of the few states to disclose basic information about its Supreme Court justices by exposing one of their more egregious missteps.
Last December, California Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar voted with the majority to not take a case involving Wells Fargo Bank. She shouldn’t have voted. Her holdings in the bank of between $100,000 and $1 million presented a clear conflict of interest and, in case that hadn’t occurred to her, one of her colleagues, Justice Marvin Baxter, recused himself for the same ethical problem.
The case, Krasch v. Wells Fargo Bank, involved a lawsuit by a couple over a mortgage serviced by the bank. The couple lost in Los Angeles County Superior Court and the California Court of Appeal for the Second District.
“The justice regrets the error,” court spokesman Cathal Conneely said.
Justices Ming Chin and Joyce Kennard received dishonorable mention in the center’s report for their participation in O'Neil v. Crane Co., a January 2012 asbestos case in which Caterpillar Inc. submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the manufacturer. The justices, both of whom owned Caterpillar stock, voted with the majority for the company. Conneely said the justices stand by their action because Caterpillar was not a party to the lawsuit.
Overall, the center gave California good marks, albeit while grading on a steep curve. The state’s numerical rating was 77 out of 100, earning it a “C.” No state received an “A” or “B.” Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received failing grades, with awful levels of transparency making it hard to find relevant public records on potential lapses. Three states—Montana, Utah and Idaho—require no judicial disclosure.
The center reviewed three years worth of personal financial disclosures and other records regarding the 335 members of state high courts and found 35 examples of potential conflicts of interest, questionable gifts and other suspected indiscretions. There were 14 instances of justices participating in cases in which they or their spouse had a financial interest.
Even if transparency were more enhanced, there might not be much to see in the 12 states that rely on high-court justices enforcing the courts’ ethics rules.
California’s relatively high marks were boosted by perfect scores in the two 10-point transparency categories of “Accountability” and “Accessibility,” mainly because they are one of two states— Hawaii is the other— that post their information online. California started doing that last year after the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) required judges to make the disclosures.
California didn’t fare as well in the other four substantive 20-point categories of disclosure: “Non-Investment Income” (15), “Investments” (15), “Gifts/Reimbursements” (10) and “Liabilities” (17). The state requires judges to report gifts worth at least $50. That’s a pretty low number, but the center dinged the state for having vague language about what constitutes a reportable gift and reporting requirements that only apply in certain circumstances.