FPPC: Calif. Judges Must Publish Financial Interests, but Not Personal Info

Ann Ravel, second from left, chairs the California Fair Political Practices Commission. She appears here as part of a political panel in March 2012. (Photo: commonwealth.club/Flickr/Creative Commons License)

Judges must post their financial information online like other elected officials, but private information such as home address and telephone number can be omitted. That was the unanimous decision of the California Fair Political Practices Commission in a ruling Thursday after more than a year's delay.

The ruling means that members of the public will soon be able to go to the FPPC website and look up key financial information on every judge in the state. The information will include gifts received, investments, businesses, and rental property, all of which could be of interest to curious citizens and investigative journalists alike, especially near election-time.

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The reason for the delay had less to do with the financial interests of judges and more to do with their safety, or so it appears from correspondence between California's judicial leadership and the FPPC.

A memo from the Judicial Council of California sketches out the back story.

Statements of financial interest have been required of elected officials, including judges, since the Political Reform Act of 1974. However, it wasn't until 2010 that the FPPC decided to post the information on the Internet.

Initially, the FPPC decided to treat judges differently by keeping their forms offline, but in early 2011 they had a change of heart. Judicial leaders pushed back, claiming that making their home addresses or telephone numbers too accessible would expose them to threats from angry litigants or criminal defendants they might have to rule against.

In a recent letter to Ann Ravel, chair of the FPPC, the California Judges Association reiterated some of those fears.

"Judges, of all people in the community, impose the final decisions on litigants, such as depriving them of liberty, defining their visitation and custody rights with children, or interpreting contracts," wrote David Rubin, president of the association. "The level of vitriol aimed at judicial officers can be hard to explain."

Judges' personal information can actually still be obtained -- it's kept on copies of the original filing -- but it's not an easy process. Members of the public seeking to view those documents must notify the judge and endure a five-day waiting period, and even then they can only view the forms in person. And there are other restrictions on access, too, according to the Rubin letter.

The FPPC ruling keeps it that way.

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