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WASTE WATCH: Costly Court Cases in Conflict

Updated: Wednesday, May 7 2014, 09:55 AM EDT
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COLUMBUS (Brooks Jarosz) -- Judges are supposed to be impartial but dozens of their cases have financial conflicts.

It's not just a matter of ethics, it's a matter of money since some cases now have to be re-tried.

Judges are required to report most financial information like stocks, investments and gifts from companies in order to determine if there is a conflict of interest in the cases they hear. However, one non-profit group uncovered that judges face no formal punishment for breaking those rules.

A judgment may be made, but numerous federal cases are reopened after a judge sends a letter admitting a conflict of interest discovered later. For example, one case involving the City of Columbus and involved a judge who owned stock in Priceline, which created conflict.

Non-profit Center for Public Integrity, found 26 federal cases with conflicts since 2010.

"Few of us know who these judges are or know about the things that economically influence their interest," law professor Christopher Fairman said.

Ohio State Associate Dean Christopher Fairman teaches at the Moritz College of Law. He says all judges are required to report certain financial information, but many times, details about gifts, income and investments is blacked out. That means if the conflict is caught months or in some cases, years later, it becomes costly.

"Certainly we're talking tens of thousands of dollars in order to retry cases -- even the small ones," Fairman said.

Federal financial disclosures is far more specific than the state. Ohio received an "F” rating by the Center for Integrity. ABC 6 Investigators found Ohio Supreme Court justices don't have to report specific income, transactions or any investment amounts.

Fairman is concerned that there are far more cases of conflict in the state and argues the disclosure requirements need to charge in order to protect people coming before the bench.

"So the more information that we have about their interests, the better off we are to make decisions about whether they should be sitting on your case or your dispute," Fairman said.

The problem with state financial disclosure is really in the paperwork since judges only have to report who gave a gift or contribution but don't have to say what it was or the value.

Several Ohio Supreme Court justices received gifts from state lawmakers after getting elected but it's not clear how much those gifts were worth.

Other reporting requirements are vague and don't specify details.

In the end, several lawyers told ABC 6 Investigators they hope the judicial system will increase what has to be reported in hopes judges will be mandated to be more open and transparent in the future.

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