TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Supreme Court has changed the way judges in the state disclose their financial earnings, especially when it comes to gift disclosures.
In January, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga appointed a group to address the issue. On May 18, the court amended its code of judicial conduct.
In 2013, the Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. Florida received an F. The state lost points in most categories for failing to make judges disclose information about the financial interests of their spouses or children. At the time, the state did not require judges to report when they are reimbursed for travel, food or other expenses.
“Florida was among the lowest of the low,” Kytja Weir, a project manager and reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, told the Florida Record. "It ranked 43 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The area that it scored the worst in was gift disclosure and reimbursements.”
The changes made earlier this month addressed and clarified concerns expressed by judges around the state over the exact reporting requirements for reimbursements, speaking fees, waivers and similar benefits that judges may receive in the course of their routine work with the legal community outside the courtroom.
Among the amended rules are that judges must report as income reimbursement for reasonable expenses of more than $100 incurred or the direct payment for a judge’s travel, food, lodging and other expenses in connection with the judge’s participation in quasi-judicial and extrajudicial activities.
Additionally, judges can accept payments to participate in quasi-judicial or extrajudicial activities as long as the payment or waiver does not give the appearance of influencing the judge or give the appearance of impropriety. The amount of money accepted cannot exceed what a person who is not a judge would receive for the same activity. That compensation is reportable as income.
Expense reimbursement is now limited to the actual cost of travel, food and lodging reasonably incurred by the judge and when appropriate to the occasion, to the judge’s spouse. Any payment in excess of such an amount is compensation and is reportable as income.
Judges are now required to report amounts over $100 for the reimbursement or direct payment of expenses and waivers or partial waivers of fees or charges for the judge or the judge’s spouse or guest, alone or in the aggregate with other reimbursements, payments or waivers received from the same source in the same calendar year.
Lastly, judges must file a public report of all gifts that are required to be disclosed and of all reimbursements or direct payments of expenses and waivers of fees or charges that must be reported.
The amendments are effective as of Jan. 1, with the first disclosure reports due on or before July 1, 2018.