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Judicial intimidation in Arkansas 

click to enlarge IN THE SPOTLIGHT, WHERE HE LIKES TO BE: Sen. Jason Rapert.
  • Brian Chilson
  • IN THE SPOTLIGHT, WHERE HE LIKES TO BE: Sen. Jason Rapert.

Sen. Jason Rapert had his big day last week. The Arkansas Legislative Council adopted his resolution criticizing Circuit Judge Chris Piazza for ruling that the Arkansas ban on same-sex marriage was a violation of constitutional equal protection and due process rights.

Rapert, with a loving Jerry Cox of the anti-gay Family Council looking on, made clear later this was about intimidating the Arkansas Supreme Court, where the appeal of Piazza's ruling is pending.

If the court defies Rapert and Cox, they will put a judicial recall law on the ballot. This would further blow judicial independence — already imperiled by politics — to smithereens.

The Supreme Court has always been subject to political pressures from the legislature, which controls pay, facilities and other niceties. The threat of removal makes it worse.

This is particularly true because of current court politics and personnel. Associate Justice Courtney Goodson will make a race for chief justice in 2016. She's been making inroads, after a rocky start, in building a coalition on the court with Justices Jo Hart and Karen Baker. Inside sources say it was Baker who rounded up three more votes from out-of-state conventioneering justices to override Justice Donald Corbin's initial decision not to stay Piazza's ruling during the appeal. Hundreds of couples who'd wanted to marry were denied the altar. Some fear the stay indicates the final posture of the court.

Goodson's influence is about more than her charm offensive. Her husband, John Goodson, a wealthy lawyer, spends heavily, along with allies, in judicial races. He raised money for Karen Baker. Trial lawyers with whom he's often associated helped pay off Hart's campaign debt. Goodson or his allies are believed by many lawyers to be behind the stealth money that attacked Tim Cullen in his narrow losing race for Supreme Court to Robin Wynne.

Goodson friends turned up, too, in the money reports of Rhonda Wood, who'll join the court in January. If the marriage equality case is still pending, Wood seems unlikely to vote for equal rights. She ran as a functional Republican (anti-gay, in other words) for the nonpartisan seat and has relied throughout her political career on Mike Huckabee as a robocalling supporter. Huckabee has equated supporters of marriage equality with Nazis.

Whatever happens in state court, Rapert and Cox can't pass a law giving recall power to Arkansas voters over federal judges, who'll also consider Arkansas's legal discrimination. (PS: There's not a chance in hell Pulaski voters would recall Chris Piazza even if the law allowed it.)

Black people should be thankful that Rapert and Cox weren't around in the 1950s and 1960s when voters passed racial discrimination laws and a constitutional segregation amendment that stayed on the books until 1992. The bigots claimed Biblical ground for their discrimination then, too.

It would be a sad continuation of Arkansas's poor record on human rights if the Arkansas Supreme Court became the first in the modern era to find that the U.S. Constitution doesn't give equal protection to gay people.

The court need not be intimidated. A ballot initiative for judicial recall couldn't reach the ballot until 2016. If approved — and there'd be opposition— a recall election would be at least a year away. You'd hope that by 2017, Arkansas would have decided to live and let gay people live, too.

But that depends, still, on a bit more judicial courage than many — including Jason Rapert and Jerry Cox — have come to expect.

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