Gavel Grab

Columnist Takes Aim at Critiques of Judicial Section Reform

Arkansas_quarter_reverse_side_2003With varying proposals floated to change the way Arkansas Supreme Court justices are chosen, columnist John Brummett seeks to bring some context in a Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette opinion.

First, he suggests, the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association wants to preserve the election of justices because trial lawyers prefer competing in the judicial election arena with a force that they know, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. “That’s what state Supreme Court races largely come down to: Money from suing lawyers versus money from defending businesses,” Brummett writes. He contends this system doesn’t result in justice for all, and that merit selection would be a big improvement, although it may not be adopted. Read more

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How to Ensure Impartial Justices in Arkansas? A Quandary

Judge Kemp

Judge Kemp

As possible reforms to judicial selection in Arkansas are debated, future Chief Justice Dan Kemp noted that current ethics rules create a quandary, and may invite revision, according to The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

He pointed to ethics rules that say a judicial candidate ought not know who contributed to his or her campaign. At the same time, ethics rules require a judge to recuse from any case involving a campaign donation large enough to “raise questions as to the judge’s impartiality.” Kemp said, “It’s a difficult situation. I do believe we need to look at some possible reforms.”

After hundreds of thousands of dollars in political “dark money” were spent in this year’s Arizona Supreme Court election, there have been calls for tough disclosure rules. At the same time, some advocates have urged a switch to merit selection of judges. The Democrat-Gazette article outlined options that might be considered for reform, including a rules change adopted by the court’s justices themselves.

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Arkansas Court Sets Up Panel to Study Judicial Selection Reform

Add the Arkansas Supreme Court to those intent on studying whether to change the way the state’s top judges are chosen. A committee of justices is the latest planning to explore possible reform “after a pair of state Supreme Court races that were overshadowed by record breaking spending from outside conservative groups,” the Associated Press said.

Earlier this month the Arkansas Bar Association set up a panel to study reform (see Gavel Grab), and this week a state Senate committee held a hearing on the topic (click here for Gavel Grab).

At a blog of The Arkansas Times, Max Brantley took a skeptical view of the announced Supreme Court study. At The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, an editorial suggested that while proponents and opponents debate about replacing judicial elections with merit selection, faster and fuller disclosure of judicial election donors.

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Arkansas: Debate Launched Over Ending Supreme Court Elections

2000px-Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Arkansas.svgThe state Senate Judiciary Committee debated, but arrived at no consensus, on Wednesday regarding proposals to end Arkansas Supreme Court elections and to require disclosure of spending in existing judicial races by outside groups.

“We’ll continue to study. This is just the beginning step in the process,” said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a Republican and the committee chairman, according to the Arkansas News Bureau.

There was advocacy on both sides of each proposal. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said earlier this month (see Gavel Grab) he would likely support an effort next year to move from judicial elections to a merit-based appointive system in the state; he made his remarks after a contentious and expensive state Supreme Court election. Read more

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Appointive System Seen as ‘Cleanest Solution’ for Picking AR Judges

It’s well enough to debate bringing disclosure to “dark money” spent to influence Arkansas judicial elections, but the “dimly-lit” and “well lit” rivers of money must not be ignored, John Brummett writes in an Arkansas Online commentary.

Brummett surveys spending of all sorts on the recent Arkansas Supreme Court election, which has ignited new debate about reform, and firmly sides with merit selection: “The cleanest solution would be to stop electing appellate-level judges and allow the governor to make confirmable nominations from a list of prospects certified by a committee consisting, but only in part, of Bar Association members.” Various proposals were to be discussed at a legislative hearing today.

A Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commentary by Brenda Blagg, meanwhile, discussed reforms under discussion and said if Arkansas thinks about switching to merit selection of its judges, voters ought to have time to give it studied consideration.

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AR: Late-Hour Donations Came From Out-of-State Attorneys

The unsuccessful campaign for Arkansas chief justice of Justice Courtney Goodson received $40,675 in last-minute donations from attorneys at several out-of-state law firms with ties to Goodson’s spouse, lawyer John Goodson, according to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The newspaper reported this year that six class-action law firms were among the most generous campaign donors to the court’s six justices; it said Goodson was the biggest recipient of such donations, and her husband’s firm was one of the big donors. She has stepped aside from hearing litigation tied to her husband’s firm. The Democrat-Gazette’s articles have been part of an increased focus on money in judicial elections that set the stage for debate over possible reform and a legislative hearing scheduled for Wednesday (see Gavel Grab).

Goodson was defeated by Circuit Judge Dan Kemp. Goodson, according to the newspaper, “has decided other class-action lawsuits that have helped maintain Arkansas’ rules and procedures for those types of cases. The state’s procedures are among the friendliest in the nation to plaintiffs’ lawyers such as John Goodson, according to law professors.”

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This Week in Arkansas: Hearing on Judicial Selection Reform

arkansas_flag_web_fc1aAs the state Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to hear debate on Wednesday about judicial selection reform in Arkansas, at least two ideas have been floated, according to an Associated Press article.

Committee chairman Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a Republican, is exploring the level of support behind the possibility of putting on the November ballot a measure to switch from election of Supreme Court justices to a merit system for appointing them.

And some Democratic legislators would like to get the governor, Republican Asa Hutchinson, to schedule several campaign finance reform measures for a special session later this year, with one of them to require disclosure of spending by “dark money” groups. Read more

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Report on Ex-Judge’s Sentencing Quotes Justice at Stake

When U.S. District Judge Brian Miller sentenced former Arkansas Judge Michael Maggio to 10 years in prison for lowering a jury verdict after taking a bribe given as campaign money, he harshly criticized the former jurist.

“What is worse, a dope dealer on the phone talking about a dope deal or a dirty judge?” Miller said, according to The Times Record. “A dirty judge is by far more harmful to society than any dope dealer.”

The Times Record reported that a debate about reforming the selection of judges is under way in Arkansas, and quoted Justice at Stake Executive Director Susan Liss. Read more

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Ex-Judge Gets 10 Years in Bribery Case; JAS Cites Need for Reform

maggio_arrivesFormer Judge Michael Maggio was sentenced by a federal judge on Thursday to 10 years in prison on a conviction of bribery arising from a campaign donations case, according to the Associated Press. Justice at Stake said the case shows the need to reform judicial selection in Arkansas.

“The bribery conviction of former Judge Mike Maggio, along with million-dollar-plus spending in this year’s Arkansas Supreme Court elections, spotlights the urgent need to reform the way Arkansas chooses its judges,” JAS Executive Director Susan Liss said in a statement. “We believe a merit-based system of appointing judges is the best way to select qualified judges and insulate them from politics and deep-pocketed donors.

“When the courthouse door is open for judicial election cash, the bankrollers may often expect something in return. We know that the flagrant criminal corruption in this case is unique, but unfortunately it flows from the same political culture that has fueled surging special interest spending in Arkansas judicial elections and elsewhere.” Read more

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Amid Rising Debate, a Call for Merit Selection in Arkansas

arkansas_flag_web_fc1aDebate is brewing in Arkansas over possible reform of the way appellate judges are elected, and amid the back-and-forth, a column by attorney Woody Bassett in The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette solidly advocates a shift to merit selection:

“In recent years campaigns for the Arkansas Supreme Court have left many of us feeling disillusioned and disheartened, regardless of whether our favored candidate won or lost. Rank partisan politics, undue influence from special interest groups and the injection of vast amounts of money into Supreme Court campaigns from both known and unknown sources are harming our state’s judicial system by eroding the respect, confidence and trust of the citizens of Arkansas in our state’s highest court.

“While most people firmly and correctly believe our circuit and district judges should continue to be chosen by the voters in the counties where they serve, Arkansas needs to establish and implement a system of merit-selection to choose who will serve on our state’s appellate courts. To do so will require that the people of this state amend the Arkansas Constitution and it’s time for our Legislature to adopt and refer such an amendment to the voters of Arkansas.”

Read more

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