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Despite prohibition, Judge Belk continues to serve on corporate board

Mecklenburg County District Judge Bill Belk hspace=4

Serving on the board of directors of a major corporation is a sweet gig. You attend a few meetings a year, and the pay is great. In the case of District Judge Bill Belk, the most recent SEC filings show he made about $150,765 in stock and fees in 2007 as a member of Sonic Automotive's board of directors. But he was supposed to give up the seat when he took office in January. That's because the state's Judicial Code of Conduct prohibits judges from serving on corporation boards. It's been that way since 1973, and it's a prohibition modeled after the American Bar Association's recommendations for judicial standards. "Most states have adopted that rule from the model code," says Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics of the American Judicature Society. "The prohibition is designed to prevent conflicts of interest between cases judges might be hearing and cases in which corporations might be involved, and also to make sure that the corporation doesn't benefit from the prestige of office that goes along with being a judge, to make sure people don't think they can curry favor with a judge by using that corporation or to make sure the corporation doesn't bandy the judge's name about inappropriately." Gray says 35 states have adopted the ABA's standards. (Click here for list of states that haven't). "Judges may not be thrilled about it, but they understand that it's part of being an public servant is to abide by these restriction and they do so with a minimum of grumbling." Judge Belk did not return several phone messages, and a Sonic Automotive official says the company has no comment. In November, Belk defeated the judge who ruled against him in his own divorce. His campaign focused on improving the family court system. Belk won with 58 percent of the vote. The following month, Belk attended an ethics class for new judges taught by Paul Ross, the head of North Carolina's Judicial Standards Commission. Ross says he told Belk he must resign from Sonic's board of directors if he wants to be a judge. Ross says Belk disagreed with the rule. Attorney James Sample says the rule is "hyperprotective," but there's good reason for that. Sample is counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. "They are protecting something that is extraordinarily important, and that's fairness and impartiality of the judicial process," Sample says. "There is clear potential for decisions involving one litigant who may not be an organization the judge is affiliated with to have an impact that either adversely or favorable affects the organization which the judge does have a relationship with." Meanwhile, the Judicial Standards Commission must receive a complaint before it investigates a judge. The Commission's Paul Ross says he's can't confirm or deny if a complaint has been filed against Belk, or if an investigation is underway. The Commission can recommend penalties, but it's up to the Supreme Court to decide whether to suspend or remove judges. Belk will benefit financially if he can hold on to his $106,445 judicial salary and his seat on Sonic's board until mid-April. If he's still on the board, Belk can then redeem nearly 3,000 shares in additional stock.