Systems of judicial accountability should be transparent, rigorous and publicly accessible. HALT has identified ten best practices from around the country that will help transform state and federal disciplinary mechanisms into systems that uphold the integrity of our nation's judiciary and protect our most vulnerable citizens.

1. Release information about a judicial ethics complaint at the conclusion of a preliminary investigation.

In an era that embraces principles of sunshine, it is critical that the nation's mechanism of judicial accountability maintain a transparent structure. An open system would publicly disclose information about a judicial ethics complaint once a preliminary investigation has been completed.

2. Replace closed-door sanctions against judges with formal, public discipline.

To successfully deter judges from abusing their positions of power and to
provide citizens with access to a judge's complete disciplinary history, all sanctions must be formal and public.

3. Provide conduct commissions with the authority to impose a wide range of public sanctions to address a broad spectrum of judicial transgressions.

Judicial conduct commissions should have the authority to publicly censure, reprimand, fine, suspend and remove incompetent, negligent and abusive judges. Without this broad latitude, commissions are often forced to dismiss complaints that allege minor wrongdoings and correct serious offenses with weak penalties.

4. Remove abusive judges from the bench.

Although thousands of ethics complaints are filed against dysfunctional state and federal judges every year, few members of the judiciary are removed from the bench. Last year, only nine judges in the country were no longer permitted to serve.

5. Clarify that complainants and witnesses have the right to speak freely about a judge's misconduct and disciplinary proceedings.

Litigants are often reluctant to bring a judge's misconduct to the attention of a local judicial discipline body because the rules of many jurisdictions "gag" individuals from disclosing information about an ethics complaint they have filed against a judge. To respect the rights of ordinary citizens and ensure that the system of oversight is operating effectively, conduct commissions should allow individuals to speak freely.

6. Host an easily navigable Web site that provides clear information about how to file an ethics complaint against a judge and allows the public to search for a judge's disciplinary history.

In today's Internet-driven culture, most individuals look for information online. Every state and circuit should host an easily navigable site that includes a clear explanation of the disciplinary process, a downloadable complaint form, past commission rulings, links to ethics standards and other critical resources.

7. Give ordinary citizens a meaningful role on the panels that decide complaints against members of the judiciary.

One way to ensure impartiality and to increase public confidence in the judicial oversight system is to include meaningful participation by ordinary citizens, yet judges and lawyers typically dominate judicial conduct commissions. Laypersons outnumber judges and lawyers in only six states.

8. Require judges to annually file comprehensive financial disclosure reports.

To determine whether a judge possesses an economic conflict of interest in a case, citizens should have the right to review comprehensive financial disclosure reports. Judge's annual filings should include information related to their outside employment, compensation, board affiliations, investments and real property. The economic interests of the judge's spouse and dependents should also be included.

9. Guarantee convenient and affordable public access to judges' financial disclosures.

To satisfy the purpose of annual reporting, court administrators should make disclosure statements available to the general public. So that litigants will not face retaliation, their identities should not be revealed to a judge when they wish to review that judge's filing. Individuals should have the option of reviewing the reports online or at their local courthouses, and copy fees should be less than $0.50 a page.

10. Place clear limitations on the gifts that judges can receive in connection with privately sponsored trips.

Corporations and special interests frequently use expense-paid trips to lavish settings in a thinly-veiled effort to lobby judges. Rigorous ethics rules would provide clear guidance to judges about what they may and may not accept from private entities by placing strict monetary caps on the funds that judges may receive.


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