Iowa earned an F this week in a Center of Public Integrity report regarding requirements of financial disclosures for state supreme court judges. But it was only one among 42 other states to receive the failing grade.
According to the center’s investigation, the lack of disclosures hinders the public from identifying possible conflicts of interest such as judges having investments or stocks with companies involved in litigation they preside over. The center found several examples of judges who authored opinions favoring corporations in which they owned stock but no Iowa judges were included in these.
So does this failing grade matter to the Iowa judiciary?
Some Iowa lawyers and legislators said the current disclosure requirements are adequate and this report is “insignificant.” They counter that the Iowa judiciary has been rated among the top in the country for fairness and impartiality.
“The center’s report and rating as applied to Iowa judges appears to be a solution in search of a problem,” Guy Cook, president of the Iowa State Bar Association and a Des Moines lawyer, said Friday.
Cook said there are adequate disclosure requirements for judges, and he doesn’t see a need for change.
Rep. Chip Baltimore, chairman of Iowa House Judiciary Committee, said also isn’t concerned, despite the center’s ranking.
“On the whole, Iowa’s judges are models of fair and unbiased impartiality, especially given the nature in which we select and retain judges,” Baltimore said.
Sen. Rob Hogg, chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, said the state’s judiciary is of the “highest integrity” and he doesn’t see a problem with the disclosures statutes that legislators also must follow.
Mike Weston, president of DRI-The Voice of the Defense Bar, and a Cedar Rapids lawyer, agreed, saying it would be more of a concern if Iowa were a state that elected judges, as some do. But Iowa judges are appointed through the merit selection process, he noted.
“I can see where there might be a concern with corporations contributing campaign funds to judges, and then there might be a conflict in court” with that business, Weston said. “Our judges don’t campaign or receive campaign funds.”
Paul Gowder, University of Iowa Law School associate professor, said the concerns seem to be “overblown. I think the public cares if judges are fair and impartial. They self-enforce and will recuse themselves if there is a conflict.”
The report cited one of Iowa’s weaknesses was that the judges were not required to list location and address of property they own. But Gowder pointed out that most of the time, if property is involved in litigation, it would be easy for the public or an interested party to do a property record search to find out if a judge owns it.
Baltimore and Weston said the Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct provides additional ethical standards judges are required to follow. The code provides additional guidance and many requirements for judges including the obligation to recuse themselves from cases in which there is a conflict, as well as restrictions on acceptance of gifts and loans.
An example is a judge can accept a gift such as a plaque, certificate and trophies, and non-monetary items with a value of “$3 or less that are received from any one donor during one calendar day.” Judges can’t receive gifts from lawyers or special pricing or loans below market rates from businesses or financial institutions, unless there are offered to the general public such as a low interest car loan.