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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ind. Courts - "Justices reveal blind spot on potential conflicts of interest"

That is the headline to this editorial today in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. It refers back to the earlier Journal Gazette story headed "State gets F in judge disclosure: Group’s claim shrugged off." Some quotes from the editorial:

Sen. Sue Glick, a LaGrange Republican and an attorney, told Kelly the Judiciary Committee hasn’t heard any calls for stricter reporting standards. “If they have a conflict, you have to believe they will step away and recuse themselves,” she said. “I am confident they will.” * * *

But the center’s study [Center for Public Integrity] found that state justices don’t always recuse themselves or reveal their conflicts.

“Last December,” the center reported, “the California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by a couple who had accused financial giant Wells Fargo & Co. of predatory lending.

“One justice, who owned stock in the bank, recused himself from the case. But Justice Kathryn Werdegar, who owned as much as $1 million of Wells Fargo stock, participated – and shouldn’t have.” * * *

In August, we expressed concern about Justice Mark Massa’s refusal to recuse himself from hearing a case involving the proposed Rockport gasification plant, a major initiative of the Mitch Daniels administration, despite glaringly obvious conflicts of interest. Massa was chief counsel to Gov. Daniels when the controversial plant deal was negotiated by the governor’s office and related, Daniels-backed legislation was approved, and he is a personal friend of the project’s director, Mark Lubbers.

The case involved a challenge to an agreement with the plant’s developer, Indiana Gasification, that would leave Hoosier heating customers holding the bag for up to $1.1 billion if the plant fails to turn a profit. On Tuesday, Massa voted with the other four justices to approve the deal. Though Massa has no financial interest in the development, the state’s judicial code requires that judges disqualify themselves from any proceeding in which their impartiality “might reasonably be questioned.”

Massa’s failure to recuse himself demonstrates that justices are not always the best self-judges when it comes to potentially compromising situations. And the center’s report shows clearly that justices in some other states have, intentionally or not, stepped over the commonly accepted lines of conflict. Why shouldn’t the very highest members of our judicial system be asked to meet the highest levels of disclosure?

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 19, 2013 04:13 PM
Posted to Indiana Courts