Watchdog Group Says Reform is Needed to Hold Judges' Feet to the Fire

Washington, DC— Today, the nation's first comprehensive study of the systems that hold state and federal judges accountable ranked Hawaii 43rd in the nation and issued the state's program a D+ grade. To shine a light on the typically toothless systems that often fail to remove abusive and incompetent judges from the bench, legal consumer watchdog group HALT, Inc. released its 2008 Judicial Accountability Report Card, analyzing programs in all 50 states, D.C. and the federal circuits.

"Hawaii's system of judicial oversight is one of the most secretive in the nation," stated HALT Senior Counsel Suzanne M. Blonder.

HALT's study found that Hawaii rules allow some dysfunctional judges to be sanctioned with private reprimands. In these cases, the public never learns of the judge's misconduct. And unlike policies in most states that allow individuals to speak freely about their ethics complaints against judges, Hawaii Supreme Court rules provide: "All participants in the proceeding shall conduct themselves so as to maintain the confidentiality of the proceeding."

"The vast majority of states have abolished these sorts of 'gag' rules," stated Blonder. "Hawaii's restrictions not only violate citizens' right to free speech, they also keep the general public in the dark about whether the system of judicial oversight is operating effectively."

HALT also faulted the state's online resources about judicial discipline, noting that the Web site for the Commission on Judicial Conduct fails to provide a clear explanation of the discipline process and lacks a downloadable complaint form, a database of past disciplinary decisions and links to the state's procedural rules. "Without online information to clarify how to file a complaint, explain judicial ethics standards or provide information about judges' disciplinary histories, few consumers will be able to understand and use the system of judicial oversight in Hawaii," stated Blonder.

Additionally, Hawaii rules fail to place meaningful limitations on the reimbursement and compensation that judges may accept in connection with corporate and special interest funded trips. "Hawaii's laws unfortunately include massive loopholes that still allow members of the judiciary to be wined and dined on the corporate dime," noted Blonder.

None of the top five states-Washington, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Arizona and California-scored higher than a B average on HALT's Report Card. More than half of the states received grades in the C range and HALT issued D's to 14 jurisdictions. Two states-Maine and Mississippi-flunked outright.

"At a time when the American public has lost faith in the impartiality and fairness of the nation's judiciary, it's critical that we have an effective system of oversight for judges," stated Blonder. "We hope that Hawaii's chief judicial officers will work to transform a mechanism marred by secrecy into a system dedicated to upholding the integrity of the judiciary."

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See also: the D+ Report Card

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