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Are Kentucky judges disclosing everything they should?

Judicial campaign signs in Louisville.
Jared Bennett
/
Judicial campaign signs in Louisville.

Kentucky voters will decide the outcome of dozens of judicial races when they head to the polls this upcoming Election Day. To learn more about who is on the ballot, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting requested financial disclosure forms from 93 sitting judges and challengers running for the bench in Jefferson County, nearby counties in north central Kentucky and the state Supreme Court.

What we learned: The disclosures don’t reveal much about the candidates’ financial holdings, while gaps in oversight and lax enforcement make it difficult to hold judges accountable for potential conflicts of interest that might come up in court.

State law requires judges and judicial candidates to file financial disclosures listing sources of income in the prior year as well as stocks, bonds and real estate valued at more than $1,000 owned by themselves, their spouse or any of their dependents. However, the forms don’t require candidates to get very specific about these things, and the information they put down tends to be sparse.

Of the 65 judges and candidates who noted they or their spouse own stocks in disclosures reviewed by KyCIR, only six named the specific companies they held stock in and none listed the value of specific investments. Kentucky’s disclosure policies have been found deficient before. In 2012, the journalism organization the Center for Public Integrity gave Kentucky’s disclosure laws a failing grade, citing the lack of specificity required in the disclosure forms.

The Kentucky Registry of Election Finance receives the financial disclosures. Still, the office is only required to review the forms for completion and make them available to the public upon request.

The registry’s primary job is to police political donations and investigate election finance law violations. KREF Executive Director John Steffen said reviewing the disclosures for impropriety is outside his agency’s scope and practical ability.

Steffen suggested that it would make more sense for candidates to file the disclosures with Kentucky’s Judicial Conduct Commission, which investigates complaints and can discipline judges for misconduct.

“I don’t understand why this falls under the registry,” Steffen said. “It’s totally separate from anything else we do.”

Shameka Parrish-Wright, state director of VOCAL Kentucky, a community organizing group working towards ending mass incarceration and the war on drugs, said the public needs to learn more about judicial candidates – including their financial ties.

“I think the public needs full knowledge for someone that is in a powerful seat,” Parrish-Wright said. “Judicial races are so important.”

Gaps in accountability and lax enforcement

With access to detailed federal judge disclosures, Wall Street Journal reporters last year identified 131 federal judges who, between 2010 and 2018, violated federal law by presiding over cases involving companies they held shares in and trading stock during the proceedings.

It would be difficult to complete a similar review here in Kentucky. Kentucky judges are required to disclose fewer details than federal judges, according to Leslie Abramson, a professor at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law who has explored questions around judicial ethics and disclosure for over 30 years.

For example, Kentucky’s disclosure form does not require the names of specific companies, only broad descriptions of the business.

Elected officials and candidates for positions in the legislative and executive branches of state government are also required to file financial disclosures. Unlike the forms filled out by the judiciary, the disclosures required for legislative and executive branch members expect more detail, such as the names of creditors and businesses in which the filer has significant investments.

Abramson said that judges are expected to regulate themselves for conflicts of interest. Some judges provide a list of financial ties to their clerk to flag assignments with conflicting interest, Abramson said, and the judge may recuse themselves from a case if they notice conflict or ask those involved if they would allow the judge to continue.

If a judge fails to recuse themselves, an attorney could use financial disclosures to point out competing interests. But Abramson said the disclosure’s vagueness “makes it very difficult for the attorney to act on [their] suspicions that the judge has a conflict of interest.”

If someone were to have a problem with a judge, judicial candidate, or something in their disclosure, they could file a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Commission, the agency Steffen of Kentucky’s election finance department thought better suited to handle judicial financial disclosures.

The commission, established by the Kentucky Supreme Court, can investigate a judge and levy sanctions, reprimands or suspensions for violations of the state’s judicial conduct code. The code expects a judge to disqualify themselves from presiding over cases when they or a family member have an economic interest in the case. Three judges, one member of the Kentucky Bar Association, and two citizens appointed by the governor sit on the commission, which doesn’t proactively look for conflicts of interest.

A spokesperson for the commission declined to make any of its members available for an interview or to answer questions about financial disclosures and judicial oversight raised in this article. The commission files annual reports summarizing the number of judicial complaints filed and actions taken. Very few complaints result in sanctions, according to the reports reviewed by KyCIR. The most recent report covers the 2019-2020 fiscal year and shows the commission considered 248 complaints against sitting judges and concluded inquiries in 227 complaints, resulting in six imposed sanctions.

The report describes the general nature of complaints, but does not explicitly mention conflicts of interests stemming from judges' financial holdings. The commission issued public reprimands for two judges accused of intervening in legal proceedings to help people they knew and one order for permanent retirement for a judge found unable to perform his duties. The other three disciplinary actions were private.

Judges and judicial candidates can turn to the Judicial Ethic Committee, composed of three judges and two Kentucky Bar Association members, for guidance about ethical issues they encounter. But a spokesperson for the committee declined an interview on the record, saying the committee does not answer questions from the general public.

What the disclosures say

Some judges provide more detail about their finances, according to a KyCIR analysis of their disclosures.

Hardin County Circuit Court Judge Kelly Mark Easton, who is running unopposed for an appellate court seat, did state specific companies he owns stock in, including Xenia Hotels & Resorts, a real estate investment trust. Though he wasn’t required to, Easton also noted that he sold his Xenia shares in 2021.

Easton told KyCIR that the value of stocks he sold in 2021 amounted to less than $20,000.

Most judges in our review of financial disclosures were not as open as he was.

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Audra Eckerle, campaigning against Tricia Lister for an appellate seat, disclosed having stocks in finance, electronics, defense and home improvement among other industries on her disclosure. But that’s as detailed as she got.

In an interview with KyCIR, she described herself as “not a very active investor” and said she relies heavily on her stockbroker. Eckerle couldn’t recall if any of her investments had direct ties to Louisville or Kentucky.

She said the lack of detail required helps protect judges' privacy.

However, Eckerle acknowledged that the current disclosure requirements don’t get the public very much information and suggested that the form should ask for more specifics.

Eckerle’s opponent, Lister, disclosed owning diverse mutual funds and technology and airline stocks. But like Eckerle, she only listed the type of investment she holds, not the companies or stock values.

Lister, a criminal defense and appeals attorney, said she barely remembered filling out the form and was surprised by the simplicity. Lister told KyCIR she knew her husband had an individual retirement account in the form of stocks and that she owns some Amazon stock, which she didn’t specify on the form. Like Eckerle, Lister said she was not an active investor but said the public should know more about judges' interests.

“People have a right to know about what sort of obligations the judges might have,” Lister said.

Views from Kentucky's highest court

All seven Supreme Court justices, including two who are on the ballot this election -- and three other candidates vying for Supreme Court seats -- report they or their spouses own stocks. None of the justices or candidates list the names of the companies they own stock in.

For example, Justice Lisabeth Hughes lists stock in a real estate leasing company, a restaurant company and “consumer personal care products” but provides no further details. Hughes did not respond to KyCIR’s requests for comment in time for publication.

Justice Laurence VanMeter discloses stocks that include an aluminum producer, five oil and gas producers and one oil and gas supplier but doesn’t share the names of those companies or what value he holds.

VanMeter told KyCIR he notifies parties in any case he oversees of potential conflicts of interest in addition to what his disclosure form reads.

“What's on the form reflects the ownership, but I recognize it doesn't provide that much information,” VanMeter said.

VanMeter declined to disclose to KyCIR the names of companies he held stock in and their value.

“I will comply with the statutes and rules such as they are,” he said.

The Kentucky General Assembly has the power to change those rules. But state lawmakers have taken a hands-off approach.

State Rep. C. Ed Massey, a Republican from northern Kentucky, is the chair of the House Standing Committee on the Judiciary. He said judicial financial disclosures have not come up since he was the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, but the topic does fall under the committee’s jurisdiction.

“Realistically, the House Judiciary Committee can investigate or look into or converse in any aspect involving the law,” Massey said.

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Crofton, chairs the Senate Standing Committee on the Judiciary.

Westerfield said he communicates with judges regularly, but he has never considered the issue of judicial financial disclosures before.

“In my nine years, I don't recall ever having been asked to revisit any policy about that, and I don't remember a bill related to that,” Westerfield said.

Alex Harrison contributed to this report.

Contact Lily Burris at lburris@louisvillepublicmedia.org.

Correction, 11/3/2022:

An earlier version of this report misstated the number of Kentucky Supreme Court Justices as 12. There are seven Supreme Court justices.

Update, 11/3/2022

An earlier version of this story reported 30 candidates or sitting judges who noted stock ownership in disclosures reviewed by KyCIR. A further review found a total of 65 judges who report they or their spouse own stock or investment accounts.

Lily is an investigative reporter for LPM. Email Lily at lburris@lpm.org.