Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Is justice for sale in the nursing home protection amendment?

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2016 at 7:39 AM

click to enlarge THE LEADER IN NURSING HOME MONEY: Courtney Goodson, but her money came in a contested campaign, whereas Rhonda Wood, the second highest, was unopposed.
  • THE LEADER IN NURSING HOME MONEY: Courtney Goodson, but her money came in a contested campaign, whereas Rhonda Wood, the second highest, was unopposed.
Channel 4's Marci Manley has delved into a familiar topic here — the amount of money spent by the nursing home industry to elect friendly justices to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The issue is important now because the court is considering lawsuits aiming to remove a nursing home protection amendment from the Nov. 8 ballot. It would make damages and attorney fees so low that lawsuits against nursing homes for abuse would be just about impossible to file. The amendment is being challenged as misleading (it upends Arkansas constitutional law without saying so) and on manifest problems in signature gathering.

No Supreme Court justice has recused, though six of the seven have received at least some money from nursing homes in past campaigns. Only Chief Justice Howard Brill, serving by appointment, has no money in his ledger. Some are more notable than others. Justice Courtney Goodson racked up $90,000 or more. More than half the money raised by Justice Rhonda Wood in her initial filing, a filing that discouraged other candidates, came from nursing homes, with a particular bundle coming through her friendship with disgraced Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker, who funneled money from mega-nursing home owner Michael Morton to Wood by the bushel. Another big beneficiary was Jo Hart, who made a point of thanking Michael Morton for his help at her investiture. Morton is the single biggest contributor to the campaign for the amendment to insulate nursing homes from lawsuits. For her part, at her investiture, Wood thanked her bagman, Gilbert Baker.

Manley's article notes that the code of conduct for judges say they should recuse — get off a case — when their impartiality could reasonably be questioned. But that's a matter for each judge to decide. She notes justices have reaped a quarter-million or more in nursing home contributions.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case said there is a time when it can recognize judicial pornography when it sees it — the $3 million pumped into the campaign of a West Virginia judge who then provided the pivotal vote in a case important to the contributor.

But how much is enough to get off a case? Conscience is in short supply at the Supreme Court. Wood has defended her continued participation in nursing home cases, though she's being directly challenged in a class action nursing home suit on her participation.

And judicial ethics got a setback at the U.S. Supreme Court this week when it refused to consider a Wisconsin state court ruling that shut down an investigation of coordinated campaign spending by an independent group and Gov. Scott Walker. The case also challenged participation by two Wisconsin justices in a decision favorable to the group targeted in the lawsuit.

The Brennan Center for Justice lamented the Supreme Court's failure to take up the case as a missed opportunity to "shore up campaign finance law" and to "protect judicial integrity."

Inevitabily, it will also provide cover for ethically challenged judges in other states who insist on staying on cases in which obvious benefactors such as Michael Morton have so much at stake. See: The Best Judges Nursing Homes Can Elect.

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