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New Rule on Disclosure of Settlements Involving Judicial Officers

Under a new rule, California courts must disclose financial settlement agreements involving judges accused of sexual harassment, discrimination, and other misconduct.

The state Judicial Council explained that courts -- when requested -- must release the records if public funds are used to pay such settlements. Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye convened a group to study and recommend a rule in April.

It's a timely rule change, given high-profile cases involving judges and others accused of misconduct. Observers praise the rule as a step in the right direction, but it could have gone further.

"National Interest"

"We recognize that the issue is one of national interest, and frankly, should be one of personal interest to all of us," said Justice Marsha Slough, who led the workgroup tasked with clarifying the rule. "The California judicial branch, whose special responsibility is to articulate and uphold the law, must be particularly vigilant and must exercise leadership."

The rule does not apply to records of the Commission on Judicial Performance, an independent agency that investigates complaints against judges. It also leaves a loop hole, like the one attorney Michael Cohen made for President Trump in the Stormy Daniels affair.

In that case, Cohen said he paid Daniels from his personal account and not from campaign funds. The President has acknowledged he reimbursed his attorney, but denies using campaign funds.

Of course, it's complicated and campaign funds and public funds are not the same. But any judge could avoid the new disclosure requirement through settlement payments made by third parties.

Loop Holes

Meanwhile, the federal courts have been dealing with a similar issue highlighted by allegations against former judge Alex Kozinski. As the scandal escalated, Chief Justice John Roberts promised an evaluation of the judiciary's sexual misconduct policies.

"Events in recent months have illuminated the depth of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, and events in the past few weeks have made clear that the judicial branch is not immune," Roberts said.

Kozinski settled his case by "retiring" and avoiding a judicial inquiry. That ended the court's responsibility, but it may have left an empty feeling behind for those who were looking for justice.

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