All judges serving on courts of record in the New York State Unified Court System – that is, all courts except town and village courts – and all non-incumbent candidates seeking election to courts of record – are required by law to file annual financial disclosure statements, like those filed by other state officials and state government employees.
The underlying public policy, as embodied in the Ethics in Government Act of 1987, is clear: to promote public confidence in the integrity of state government institutions and officers, to discourage the use of public office to further private gain, and to preserve the integrity of governmental institutions. The Act prohibits certain activities, requires financial disclosure by certain State employees, and provides for public inspection of financial statement.
Among other things, the filing of public financial disclosure statements by judges provides a check on conflicts of interest. Litigants, lawyers and others have a means of identifying potential conflicts and, if necessary, moving to disqualify a judge from presiding over matters where such conflicts appear to exist. Of course, for the system to work as intended, judges and others who are obliged to file such statements must do so accurately. Even inadvertent omissions may thwart the intended purpose of the reporting requirement by concealing information about conflicts that might have prompted a litigant or lawyer to request a new judge in a case. Material omissions that were intentional or grossly negligent would be especially egregious and, if proven, lead to serious disciplinary consequences.
Since 1990, the Ethics Commission for the Unified Court System (UCS Ethics) has been responsible for administering the distribution, collection, review and maintenance of annual financial disclosure statements for all judges and those court system employees who are required by law to file. The powers, duties and procedures of the UCS Ethics are set forth in 22 NYCRR Parts 40 and 7400.
Section 211(4) of the Judiciary Law and Section 40.2 of the Rules of the Chief Judge require judges to file their annual financial disclosure statements by May 15 of each succeeding year. Section 100.5(A)(4)(g) of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct require a judicial candidate to file a financial disclosure statement “within 20 days following the date on which the judge or non-judge becomes such a candidate.”
Full-time judges are also obliged under the Rules to report extra-judicial compensation annually to the clerk of the courts on which they sit. 22 NYCRR 100.4(H)(2).
A judge who fails to submit a timely disclosure statement is issued a “Notice to Cure” by UCS Ethics, usually providing 30 days notice. Failure to heed a Notice to Cure results in issuance of a “Notice of Delinquency,” which UCS Ethics is also required to send to the Judicial Conduct Commission, pursuant to Section 40.1(k) of the Rules of the Chief Judge.
A Notice of Delinquency automatically triggers a Commission investigation against the allegedly tardy judge. Where investigation reveals a valid excuse, discipline would not be imposed. Where the judge’s explanation is not persuasive but the delinquency was a first-time oversight and the judge promptly files upon receipt of the UCS Ethics notice, the Commission may issue a confidential cautionary letter. However, where there are aggravating circumstances with respect to a judge’s financial disclosure statements, such as multiple instances of late filings or filings that contain material inaccuracies, public discipline may result.
In 2020, the Court of Appeals upheld the Commission’s determination to remove a Family Court judge from office, in part due to material deficiencies in various annual disclosure statements, such as the failure to report extra-judicial income. Matter of Richard H. Miller, II, 35 NY3d 484 (2020). Less egregious cases of late or inaccurate filings have resulted in censure or admonition. See, Matter of McAndrews, 2014 Annual Report 157; Matter of Nora S. Anderson, 2013 Annual Report 75; Matter of Joseph S. Alessandro, 13 NY3d 238 (2009); Matter of Francis M. Alessandro, Id.; Matter of John J. Elliott, 2003 Annual Report 107; Matter of Robert T. Russell, Jr., 2001 Annual Report 121; and Matter of Bernard Burstein, 1994 Annual Report 57.
Financial disclosure is an important and uncomplicated judicial obligation, as to which discipline is almost always the result of easily averted self-inflicted error. All judges and judicial candidates can avoid the Commission’s attention in this regard by fulfilling their annual disclosure responsibilities in a timely and complete manner.
From the 2022 Annual Report, pages 17-18