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PA’s Judges Must Reveal the Perks They Accept, But the Public Won’t Find Those Disclosures Online

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA

Photo courtesy of Kent M. Wilhelm / Spotlight PA

While disclosures filed by state government officials are published online, judges’ forms aren’t. The public must ask for copies — provided they know where to go for that information.

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

Every year, thousands of officials in state government must fill out reports by May 1 that disclose their sources of income, creditors, and business interests, as well as any gifts, hospitality, or other perks they accepted.

Those reports, called statements of financial interest, are then made publicly searchable and available online. The forms are a key way for the public to gain a deeper understanding of their elected officials’ financial ties, as well as discover which outside groups may be trying to influence public policy decisions.

Pennsylvania’s judges, however, play by somewhat different rules.

Though they too must file annual disclosures, theirs aren’t posted online. The public must ask for copies — provided they know where to go for that information.

Some good-government advocates say this creates an unnecessary inconvenience for anyone trying to quickly access fundamental information about Pennsylvania’s judiciary, a critical branch of government with great power over civil and criminal matters.

“Judges are public officials, and there are many special interests trying to influence the courts,” said Michael Pollack, executive director of March On Harrisburg, a group that pushes for transparency in government, as well as a ban on gifts to elected officials.

“When you erect barriers, you are denying access,” he said.

Stacey Witalec, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, did not answer a question about why the courts do not post financial interest statements for judges online. “While not posted on our website, the Court makes the statements of financial interest available upon request,” she said in an email.

She did not elaborate.

Statements of financial interest are at their core a tool to increase public trust in government. But they also can act as deterrents, the thinking being that disclosure makes it less likely a public official will engage in any conflicts of interest. The importance of a robust reporting system was amplified following media investigations last year that revealed several U.S. Supreme Court justices had not disclosed certain gifts and travel.

In Pennsylvania, elected officials, including the governor, state legislators, and row officers, file annual statements of financial interest with the state Ethics Commission (municipal officials file their forms with their local jurisdictions). The commission makes those reports available on its website, which last year housed 11,693 such forms, according to officials there.

Judges, in contrast, submit their annual disclosures to the AOPC, the administrative arm of the state Supreme Court. They fill out a form unique to the judiciary — even though they too have to disclose many of the same things as non-judges, including outside income, real estate and business interests, and any outside reimbursement of expenses (such as comped trips or transportation).

Anyone who wants a copy of a judge’s annual disclosure has to ask the AOPC for one.

A recent report compared access to statements of financial interest for state Supreme Court justices across the country and gave Pennsylvania an average grade. Among other things, the report found that 24 of the 48 states that require annual judicial disclosures don’t post justices’ reports online.

“It’s 2024, and there’s no valid excuse,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, in a news release announcing the study. Roth’s nonprofit organization advocates for accountability in federal courts.

Philadelphia lawyer Terry Mutchler, a former head of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, said she would be more troubled if judges weren’t required to file disclosures at all.

Still, she said, “Anytime you can create ease and post things online, it is better for transparency … It’s the difference between a B-plus and an A.”

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The post PA’s Judges Must Reveal the Perks They Accept, But the Public Won’t Find Those Disclosures Online appeared first on BCTV.

Source: bctv

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