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Center for Public Integrity gives N.H. an “F” for Supreme Court financial disclosures

A new report from the Center for Public Integrity gives New Hampshire an F for what it describes as lax financial disclosure requirements for the five justices of the state Supreme Court.

New Hampshire is hardly unique: The report, released today, assigns failing grades to 42 states and the District of Columbia for not providing detailed information to the public about the financial holdings of the judges on their high courts.

“Much has been made of the potential corrupting influence of campaign contributions on judicial elections. But little attention has been paid to the personal finances of the 335 judges in the state courts of last resort and how those holdings may influence decisions handed down from the bench,” wrote Reity O’Brien, Kytja Weir and Chris Young for the center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan investigative journalism organization based in Washington, D.C.

State courts spokeswoman Carole Alfano said the fact that so many states received failing grades should raise questions about the report itself.

“New Hampshire has strong disclosure, and no one currently is asking for the judicial forms to be changed,” she said. “If CPI had taken a different tack on it – maybe, ‘Here’s some suggestions we have,’ – the court may have listened. But the flat-out F isn’t helpful, and it isn’t terribly legitimate.”

Unlike many states, New Hampshire does not elect its judges. The governor nominates candidates for the Supreme Court, as well as for superior court and circuit court judgeships, and the five-member Executive Council reviews and confirms those nominees.

Judges in New Hampshire serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70.

The state Supreme Court’s Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to file an annual disclosure report, which is kept on file at the Supreme Court and made available to the public. That form must include compensation received beyond a judge’s official salary, gifts, sources of income for the judge and his or her spouse, land holdings, business ownerships and other information.

Those disclosure forms are available to the public but aren’t available online, which cost New Hampshire points in the report’s grading system.

“The court believes that the New Hampshire form strikes the appropriate balance,” Alfano said. “But putting the information online . . . could raise other concerns, including the security of a judge’s family.”

The Center for Public Integrity found New Hampshire’s rules lacking in several areas.

“The state sets high thresholds for when judges need to report information,” the report declares. “Judges must report stock ownership, for example, only if the judge or anyone in the household owned 1 percent or more of all available stock in a company. Judges must disclose reimbursed expenses only if the amount received exceeds the actual cost of the travel or event. The information sought for real estate is also limited: judges must report only the city or town in which the land is located and a description of how the property is used.”

Still, the report noted, New Hampshire “scored better than average” on the report’s methodology, earning 48 points out of a possible 100. The Granite State ranked 21st overall, in a tie with Oregon.

California and Maryland scored highest among the states, earning C grades from the center. Montana, Idaho and Utah tied for last place with F grades and zero points each – they’re the only three states that don’t require any disclosure filings.

The federal court system got higher marks than any state, with 84 out of 100 points and a B grade.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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