On December 7, 2023, The Center for Public Integrity published an article highlighting issues with financial conflicts of interest and judicial ethics among some state supreme court justices. The article focused in particular on the actions of North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby.
The article notes that since 2015, Newby has heard at least six cases involving Duke Energy, a massive utility company in which Newby and his wife owned a direct financial stake worth at least $20,000 according to disclosure forms. According to North Carolina’s code of judicial conduct, judges should recuse themselves from cases where they have a financial interest in a party in order to avoid any reasonable questions about their impartiality. However, Newby did not recuse and voted in favor of Duke Energy’s position in each case.
Newby declined multiple requests for comment from the Center for Public Integrity about his stock ownership and approach to judicial ethics. Ethics experts said even owning a single share can undermine public trust in a judge’s impartiality. One case involved allowing Duke Energy to pass costs from a major coal ash spill onto customers through rate hikes. Newby’s rulings could have impacted the value of the stock he owned in Duke Energy.
While financial conflicts would prohibit a federal judge from hearing similar cases, standards are more lax for state supreme court justices. In many states, justices make their own recusal decisions without any review process. They can also discipline their own members. Many states also require limited, hard-to-access financial disclosures from justices.
The article argues issues with judicial ethics among state high courts have not received sufficient public attention despite their outsize political power. Systems of judicial discipline are poorly designed and leave justices policing themselves in many areas. Campaign finance in judicial elections also raises serious ethics and impartiality concerns. Recusal procedures are inadequate in many states as well.
The article calls for increased transparency around state justices’ financial holdings and recusal practices. It maintains high courts should not be able to solely police themselves. In highlighting Newby’s actions in North Carolina, the article aims to draw more public scrutiny to financial conflicts and ethics among state supreme court justices nationwide. Experts argue such issues can seriously undermine trust in a fair and impartial judiciary.
Source: The Center for Public Integrity