Gazette opinion: A sunshine rule for Montana’s highest court

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: A sunshine rule for Montana’s highest court The Billings Gazette
March 16, 2014 12:00 am

The Montana Supreme Court is responsible for protecting our constitutional guarantees to open government. Montana journalists and other citizens of our great state frequently seek the court’s protection of our right to examine public documents and our right to participate in public governmental decisions. Right to know cases usually involve local government officials refusing to provide public access to public information. When that happens, Montanans must rely on their District Courts and their Supreme Court to uphold the constitutional and statutory provisions guaranteeing transparency in our state and local government.

Next week, the Supreme Court should take a significant step for its own transparency. The court has scheduled a public meeting for 1 p.m. March 25 at the court in Helena. The court is scheduled to act on a proposed order for the justices to make regular financial disclosures between elections.

There is no opposition to this order and we fully expect that the six justices will approve it.

Although the Montana code of judicial ethics already requires justices to remove themselves from cases in which they have any financial interest, this new reporting requirement will provide the public with an extra measure of assurance that our appellate judges are following the code.

The fact that not all judges follow the code of ethics all the time was revealed in a national report released in December by the Center for Public Integrity. Using financial disclosure forms that some states require of their high court judges, the nonprofit watchdog organization documented cases in which judges who had financial ties to a litigant failed to recuse themselves from deciding the case.

None of those cases were in Montana. Our state was one of only three that requires no financial disclosure by those who sit on our highest court. The Center for Public Integrity couldn’t even research Montana cases because there was absolutely no financial information on the judges.

On Jan. 2, Chief Justice Mike McGrath proposed that the Supreme Court justices be required to file the same Business Disclosure Statement that is mandatory for other statewide elected office holders as well as appointed state department heads.

The public comment period on this rule change ended Feb. 28 without any public comments being filed with the court.

However, as pointed out in previous Gazette opinions, this rule change is an obvious, common-sense idea for public disclosure.

The business reports will bolster public confidence in the court. With public access to financial reports, every citizen and every litigant will have the ability to get the same information on the justices.

Importantly, the Supreme Court can act next week so this new disclosure rule will require the justices to file reports by Dec. 15.

Disclosure gives assurance that justices have neither conflicts of interest nor the appearance of conflicts.

It takes votes of four justices in favor to adopt a new court rule. We hope that the March 25 meeting will bring a unanimous vote for transparency.

This is Sunshine Week in America, a time in which newspapers across the country remind readers of their right to know about their government and our responsibility as journalists to defend that right.

At the start of Sunshine Week, we salute the Montana journalists and private citizens who exercise their rights to keep our state and local governments open and accountable to the people.

We applaud the Montana Supreme Court for recognizing the importance of transparency and acting expeditiously to add sunshine to its winter docket.

As McGrath said: “It’s another assurance to the public that judges are independent.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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