Monday, October 10, 2016

Arkansas Supreme Court splits with bar on lawyer ceremony

Posted By on Mon, Oct 10, 2016 at 10:26 AM

click to enlarge front_of_justice_building_5_.jpg

I reported last week
on the draft of an Arkansas Bar Association committee's proposal to choose members of the Arkansas Supreme Court by appointment rather than election. I mentioned that several on the court are not receptive to the idea. More evidence of that is in a letter I received from a lawyer, who I'll protect since he must practice before the court.

The Arkansas Bar Association has participated for years in the official swearing-in ceremony of new attorneys. The president of the Bar usually speaks, the Bar takes photos of the chief justice giving the new attorney his/her license, and sponsors a reception for the new attorneys and family. The ceremony for those who passed in July was last week. Here's the interesting bit — the Bar Association was "dis-invited" from the ceremony. Apparently this was due to the adoption of the report seeking a change in the selection of judges, a position that (probably) a majority of the Court is opposed to and led to the un-inviting. This is a pretty significant blow to collegiality, among other things. There is a fear that the legislature will side with the governor and go to gubernatorial appointment. This divide seems to have the potential of damage to the profession and that is unfortunate.

I asked Denise Hoggard, president of the Arkansas Bar Association, about the report. She said a long custom of participation in a joint ceremony had ended last week, but she said she just viewed the change as a "new opportunity." She said there was more space at the Capitol for family to attend the event Friday and that it was easy for the governor and legislators to drop by.  "It was well attended and well received," she said. Beyond that, she didn't want to comment.

Best I can tell from multiple lawyers is that only one justice attended the reception at the Capitol — Chief Justice Howard Brill, who's serving by appointment to complete the term of the late Jim Hannah.

The Supreme Court's administrative office helped coordinate the event. The new lawyers were advised in a letter of a change in the original plans for a reception at the Supreme Court.

The court doesn't discuss its internal decision making. It might have been the Bar's position on court selection that influenced a departure from custom. It might have been a concern for appearances — the Bar Association is a participant in a lawsuit challenging a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit damages in lawsuits against nursing homes and other health care providers.

But other context includes demonstrations of pettiness by members of the court before — remember when a group of justices joined together to glare at then-Attorney General Dustin McDaniel at a Bar Association speech after he'd made remarks about "results-oriented" decision making?

Internally, too, the court has struggled. A bloc of the court (Justices Courtney Goodson, Jo Hart and Karen Baker) effectively stripped Chief Justice Hannah of some of his administrative authority in vetoing his choice of a new chief clerk. The politicking got so bitter that there was a delay in issuing a Supreme Court order praising Hannah after his death, with Justice Rhonda Wood finishing last in joining with words of praise.

By the way, as to the core issue:

The Bar's Supreme Court selection proposal is to have the governor choose future justices from three names submitted by a nine-member committee — five from the bar, two from the governor and two from legislative leaders. The appointee would serve a single 14-year term. Current justices would be eligible for appointment in the first round of the new process.

That proposal faces a tough uphill battle to reach the ballot as a constitutional amendment. Gov. Asa Hutchinson favors unilateral gubernatorial appointment, with Senate confirmation. A lot of people prefer sticking with election and all the dark money that comes with it.

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