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Most Kentucky Supreme Court justices did not file 2023 financial disclosure reports

Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter (left) at a 2024 Law Day event in the Kentucky House chamber in Frankfort, also attended by Justices Christopher Nickell, Debra Lambert, Angela Bisig, Michelle Keller and Robert Conley (right to left, in judicial robes).
Joe Sonka
Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter (left) at a 2024 Law Day event in the Kentucky House chamber in Frankfort, also attended by Justices Christopher Nickell, Debra Lambert, Angela Bisig, Michelle Keller and Robert Conley (right to left, in judicial robes).

A majority of Kentucky justices did not file financial disclosures last year and did not file their reports on time in 2024, adding to existing criticisms that the state’s judicial transparency rules are among the worst in the country.

Four Kentucky Supreme Court justices failed to file their required financial disclosure reports last year, despite a state law that potentially allows them to be thrown out of office for not doing so.

This year, five of the seven justices failed to file their annual reports by the March 15 legal deadline, only doing so after Kentucky Public Radio began asking for the reports.

State law mandates that all justices, judges and commonwealth’s attorneys, as well as candidates for those offices, file the financial disclosure reports to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance (KREF). The same law requires the agency to notify officials who are late on their reports and potentially vacate the office if they still fail to file. However, the director of KREF said he did not follow through on either action in 2023.

Asked in April why a majority of the court had failed to file their forms last year, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter replied in a statement that members “had come to rely on” a courtesy reminder in February from KREF to file the reports.

With the seventh Supreme Court justice finally submitting their 2024 financial disclosure report May 1, VanMeter wrote that “the failure to file the disclosure was, thus, mere oversight and has been rectified.”

However, even when these financial disclosure reports have been regularly filed by justices in past years, they have been criticized as woefully inadequate, failing to require enough detail to root out any potential conflicts of interest.

Judicial watchdog group Fix the Court released a report in March grading the transparency of Supreme Court justices’ financial disclosures in each state, giving Kentucky an ‘F'. That was the same failing grade given to Kentucky in a similar report by the Center for Public Integrity a decade earlier in 2013.

Both reports ranked Kentucky near the bottom of states for only requiring justices’ to list vague details about their financial investments, as they do not have to reveal the name of companies they own stock in or even provide a range of their value. Additionally, Kentucky remains one of the states where justices’ disclosure forms are not posted online for the public to view.

Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, said Kentucky’s persistent transparency shortcomings were bad enough, but the newfound failure of some justices to even file these disclosure reports last year makes matters even worse.

“These are critical oversight tools, both internally and for the public,” Roth said. “People of the state of Kentucky deserve to know what potential entanglements their justices have, and one way to do that is through these annual reports.”

Roth is among the judicial ethics advocates and experts calling on Kentucky to enact reforms to strengthen judicial transparency, which is largely spelled out in a state law that hasn't been updated in more than three decades.

But what those reforms should look like and who should lead this effort is up for debate.

The director of KREF said he believes it is not the appropriate agency to oversee conduct of the state’s highest court, but that would require the legislature to amend state law. However, a former chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court said any potential reform should be the prerogative of — and directed by — the judicial branch.

Kentucky judicial disclosure law and transparency shortcomings

Kentucky’s law requiring justices, judges and commonwealth’s attorneys — as well as candidates for those offices — to annually file financial disclosure reports with KREF was first passed in 1972 and has not been amended since 1993.

Under KRS 61.710 to 61.780, these reports must list not only any office, directorship or position of employment held by that individual or their spouse and dependents, but “a description of each financial interest” they hold that is valued at $1,000 or more.

Where Kentucky differs from most states — as well as judges at the federal level — is that its Supreme Court justices can be extremely vague on where those financial interests lie, and what they are worth.

State law indicates the value of these financial interests “need not be disclosed,” while specific interests “need not be identified by name” and “may instead be identified by the principal types of economic activity in which it engages.”

For example, the filing of Chief Justice VanMeter this year shows that he and his wife own more than 70 stocks that are each worth more than $1,000, but there is no value or range of value attached to them. Additionally, the stocks are only identified vaguely and not by the name of the company, such as “aluminum producer,” “oil & gas producer,” “information technology company” and “pharmacy.”

Chief Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court Laurance B. VanMeter, serving the 5th Supreme Court District, is photographed Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in the Supreme Court Chambers at the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky.
BRIAN BOHANNON
/
Administrative Office of the Courts
Chief Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court Laurance B. VanMeter, serving the 5th Supreme Court District, is photographed Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in the Supreme Court Chambers at the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. (AOC photo/Brian Bohannon)

Most of the Kentucky justices’ reports this year described their stock portfolio in a similar fashion, though justices are free to voluntarily name companies they have a financial interest in.

Just as former Justice Will T. Scott voluntarily released the names of coal, oil and gas companies he leased land to in his reports a decade ago, current Justice Kelly Thompson listed the companies he owns stocks of in his 2024 report, such as Amazon, Shell and Pfizer.

Roth with Fix the Court said this is a large reason why Kentucky was given another ‘F’. Reports that don’t require justices to disclose the names of companies — or even differentiate between stocks worth $2,000 and $2 million — are “pretty worthless from an oversight perspective,” he said.

The motivation for financial disclosures is to guard against judges having a conflict of interest, ruling on cases in which they have a financial stake in one of its parties. Roth cited numerous examples in recent years when state Supreme Court justices and federal judges did so instead of recusing themselves from the case, even when their financial interests were disclosed.

The Center for Public Integrity reported last year that North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby ruled in favor of Duke Energy in six cases since 2015, despite he and his wife reporting they own at least $20,000 in Duke Energy stock. In its 2013 report, the nonprofit found more than a dozen examples of state justices participating in cases where they or their spouse owned stock in a company that was a party.

Even though it is against the law and judicial ethics for federal judges to hear cases in which they own stock in one of its parties, a Wall Street Journal report from 2021 found that 152 federal judges oversaw 1,076 cases in the past decade involving companies in which they or family owned stock. Judges in more than 800 cases have acknowledged they should have recused themselves and the cases are eligible to be reopened.

While Kentucky’s Code of Judicial Conduct says judges must recuse themselves from cases where they have a financial interest, Roth notes that it would be a mistake to just assume that its justices would be immune from this issue of conflicts.

“Kentucky's judiciary is not different or special,” Roth said. “Every judiciary at the state or federal level has the same issues when it comes to potential conflicts of interest and the need for both internal and public oversight mechanisms. I would hope that the state realizes that and takes steps to ameliorate the situation.”

Leslie Abramson, a judicial ethics professor at the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law, agreed that more specific information should be included on Kentucky’s financial disclosure forms, asking “why is it that nobody wants us to notice?”

“That kind of specific information needs to be available to the parties and their lawyers,” Abramson said. “Because to the extent that there's any concern about a possible conflict of interest, if you don't have that specific information, it's pretty difficult to do anything about it.”

This issue of judicial transparency has even made headlines at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court was pushed to adopt its first-ever code of ethics last fall, in the wake of a ProPublica series revealing major undisclosed gifts to justices from a small number of wealthy and politically-connected donors. The series won the Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting in May, with the award’s judges saying it “pierced the thick wall of secrecy” surrounding the court to reveal how “billionaires wooed justices with lavish gifts and travel.”

Online reporting, gifts and reimbursements

Whereas only eight states posted their Supreme Court justices’ financial disclosure reports online in 2013, half of states do so today — but Kentucky is not one of them.

While KREF does not post the reports on its website — another reason for its 'F' from Fix the Court — they can be obtained by requesting them from the agency (as well as hundreds of reports from judges, prosecutors and candidates for those offices).

The financial disclosure forms obtained by Kentucky Public Radio for all justices from 2023 and 2024, as well as those for candidates from 2022 and 2024, can be viewed at the end of this story.

According to Fix the Court’s new study, the only area where Kentucky improved in transparency is that the Administrative Office of the Courts now posts a quarterly report showing the reimbursement of any expenses to judges and justices — each of which are reported to the chief justice. This change did not come about through legislative changes to state law, rather a 2018 amendment to the Kentucky Code of Judicial Conduct issued by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The latest reimbursement report shows most reimbursements involve waivers of fees or expenses paid for judges to attend jurisdiction courses or state and national legal conferences. This report shows four Kentucky justices reporting eight reimbursements dating back to last summer.

Justice Kelly Thompson was elected to the Kentucky Supreme Court in November 2022.
Administrative Office of the Courts
Justice Kelly Thompson was elected to the Kentucky Supreme Court in November 2022.

For example, Justice Thompson reported being reimbursed for airfare, lodging and parking by the National Foundation for Judicial Excellence — a judicial education nonprofit governed by defense lawyers — for a Washington, D.C. appellate symposium, as well as his accommodations for a Kentucky Justice Association convention in Louisville.

There is no requirement in the Code of Judicial Conduct for justices to report gifts, though it also includes a broad prohibition against accepting gifts or items of value if this would “appear to a reasonable person to undermine the judge's independence, integrity, or impartiality.” This would include gifts from “a party or other person, including a lawyer, who has come or is likely to come before the judge, or whose interests have come or are likely to come before the judge.”

Late reports and ‘mere oversight’

The four Kentucky Supreme Court justices who failed to file their financial disclosure reports with KREF in 2023 did so despite a state law that could have allowed the agency to initiate their removal from office.

Under KRS 61.710 to 61.780, these reports must be filed with KREF each year by March 15. Within 30 days of that date, KREF is required to publish a list of who has filed these reports and notify anyone who hasn’t.

If any judges, justices or prosecutors fail to report within 30 days of such a notice by KREF, or “willfully files fraudulent information” in it, their office “shall be void.” The statute adds that any action to declare a vacancy for this office “may be brought by (KREF) upon its determination, after investigation and hearing,” that a violation of the law occurred. This is also the case for candidates seeking these offices, who can be disqualified by the agency.

Despite most justices not filing their disclosure form last year, such actions have not been initiated in recent years by KREF, according to its executive director John Steffen.

Steffen said KREF has not posted a list of the individuals who have filed a financial disclosure report either last year or this year, nor has it consistently notified late filers. As for why, he frankly cited the agency’s struggle to manage such a workload, in addition to its function of maintaining a campaign finance database for all candidates and political committees in Kentucky.

“Due to staff changeover and staff shortages, this has not been a priority the past couple of years as it has nothing to do with our primary mission,” Steffen stated in an email.

This means that KREF did not file a notice in 2023 to Justices Debra Lambert, Angela Bisig, Robert Conley and Kelly Thompson, who did not submit a financial disclosure report that year. Only Justices Christopher Nickell and Michelle Keller filed before the March 15 deadline in 2023, while Chief Justice VanMeter filed his in April.

Nickell and Keller were also the only two justices to file their reports on time in 2024, while VanMeter filed his report on April 5.

Kentucky Public Radio began asking KREF for the financial disclosure forms of justices in March, following the release of the Fix the Court report. Steffen replied on April 11 that he reached out to someone with the court system “who will hopefully remind the other four of their obligation to send these to KREF.” Bisig, Lambert and Conley submitted their reports in the following days.

Kentucky Public Radio asked for in-person interviews with Supreme Court justices on April 25, with Administrative Office of the Courts spokesperson Jim Hannah saying questions would have to be sent to them in writing.

Asked if it is concerning that some Supreme Court justices have not promptly filed their reports in the past two years, Chief Justice VanMeter replied through an emailed statement that all judges “are accountable for complying with the law in all respects, including timely filing the financial disclosures required by KRS 61.710-.780.”

“We understand this information is important for disclosing issues that could create a conflict or the appearance of a conflict,” he added.

The justices who did not file their report last year did not reply to emailed questions asking why, but VanMeter answered on their behalf, explaining that it was likely due to not being reminded by KREF that they had to do so.

VanMeter wrote that “each has stated that he or she had never previously failed to report, but, frankly, had come to rely on the (KREF) reminder, which typically was sent about mid-February of each year to remind judges and justices of the March 15 reporting date.”

Noting that KREF did not send that February reminder in 2023 and 2024, the chief justice added that “the failure to file the disclosure was, thus, mere oversight and has been rectified.”

VanMeter added that Justice Thompson was late on his report due to being on medical leave. He filed his report with KREF on May 1, and had previously filed a timely report in 2022 when he was first a candidate for the office.

There are only two candidates running for the Kentucky Supreme Court this year, both of which are running in District 5, where VanMeter is not running for reelection. Of those, only Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine filed her report by the March deadline, while Frankfort attorney Erin Izzo filed hers the day after this story published.

KREF director says agency not proper venue for judicial oversight

In his explanation for why KREF was struggling to keep up with judicial disclosure reports and remainders in recent years, Steffen added his opinion that it doesn’t make sense for his agency to be the one to provide this oversight of judges and justices.

Steffen pointed out that all executive branch officers and statewide candidates for constitutional office must file a similar financial disclosure form with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, while all members of the Kentucky General Assembly and legislative candidates must file such a form with the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Likewise, he argued that judicial officers and candidates “should have to file financial disclosure forms with the Judicial Ethics Committee,” which could also enforce any failure to file.

Such a change to state law would have to be done through legislation passed by the General Assembly.

Asked if he agreed that it would make more sense to have judges file their disclosure reports with a different agency, such as the Judicial Ethics Committee, Chief Justice VanMeter did not tip his hand, writing that “we will work with the General Assembly if they determine modification of the statute is appropriate.”

Roth with Fix the Court said he was sympathetic to Steffan’s argument and thought it would make sense to house judicial oversight within an ethics committee — noting Kentucky is a rarity among states to give a campaign finance agency this task. However, he wasn’t buying anyone’s excuses for why justices have not been filing reports on time and KREF has not been following up on them.

“It has to fall to someone, and in Kentucky for right now, it’s KREF,” said Roth, who also added “there’s really no excuse for not filling these out.”

Abramson with the Brandeis School of Law also thought it may make sense to involve the Judicial Ethics Committee (which responds to ethical inquiries of judges and judicial candidates) or the Judicial Conduct Commission (which can take disciplinary action against sitting judges), but felt like the legal profession as a whole in Kentucky should come forward with an improvement to the current situation.

“It's not as though there aren't state bar associations, local bar associations, prosecutor organizations, defense counsel organizations, that could try to gather a bunch of other organizations together and try to do something about it to encourage everybody to remember what they're supposed to do,” Abramson said.

Kentucky’s Judicial Ethics Committee and Judicial Conduct Commission both declined to comment for this story, indicating they cannot take a position on any proposed change.

Former chief justice says high court should lead potential reform

One person who has a very different take on oversight of judicial financial disclosure reports is an attorney who has filled out many of the forms himself — former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John Minton Jr., who served two terms on the high court and was chief justice from 2008 until he retired in January 2023.

According to Minton, the current statute — or any other disclosure mandate decreed on the judicial branch by the legislature — is running afoul of the Kentucky Constitution.

“To me, the statute is really a violation of separation of powers, for the legislature to legislate judicial conduct like that,” Minton said. “If something more needs to be done, it would be the business of the judicial branch to look and see if they feel that their reporting is adequate.”

David Brinkley, WKYU
Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John Minton Jr.

Specifically, Minton said he trusts Chief Justice VanMeter to examine the issue and make the right decision on whether any potential changes are needed.

Minton noted the change made to the Kentucky Code of Judicial Conduct the high court made in 2018 when he was chief justice, which added the requirement to report reimbursements for judges and justices and prohibit certain gifts.

He also said the Judicial Conduct Commission might have an appropriate role in any potential reform, as it’s “an independent agency of the government.”

As for whether judges’ financial disclosure forms should be changed to require more detail on investments, Minton said he thought “the whole matter could bear some scrutiny,” as “Professor Abramson is probably right, that more specificity would be in order.”

However, he added that there has to be some kind of guardrails on how much is required to be disclosed, so as to not ward off qualified judges from such offices.

“I think that in today's world, regulators who are interested in transparency need to also be aware of the ability to use all of the information that might be disclosed as a weapon in some way,” said Minton, who added that he trusted the Supreme Court to factor that into a workable disclosure rule.

Minton said he recalls all justices filing the financial disclosure reports with KREF when he was chief justice, but noted that the agency usually sent them a reminder notice before the deadline.

“The whole time I was chief justice, matters about this never arose, except when some out of state group did a national study and gave us an F, and then life went on,” Minton said.

“Under the current scenario, the legislature requires the judicial branch to file a report with the executive branch, and then nothing happens to it. Nobody looks at it. Nobody knows where to find it.”

Minton said such disclosures are still needed, as they are a mechanism “to promote confidence in the integrity of the court, that the decider has no financial interest in the matter. It is important.”

Financial disclosures of Kentucky Supreme Court justices and candidates

2024 justices

Michelle Keller

Christopher Nickell

Laurance B. VanMeter

Debra Lambert

Angela Bisig

Robert Conley

Kelly Thompson

2024 candidates

Pamela Goodwine

2023 justices

Christopher Nickell

Michelle Keller

Laurance B. VanMeter

Angela Bisig (filed in April 2024)

2022 candidates

Shawn Alcott

Kelly Thompson

Jason Bowman

Joseph Fischer

This story has been updated.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.

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