Good morning Arkansas. The blogger returns with more thoughts on money's influence on judicial races | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good morning Arkansas. The blogger returns with more thoughts on money's influence on judicial races

Posted By on Sat, Apr 19, 2014 at 6:58 AM

click to enlarge LET'S DIG IN: Except  you'll have to go to Portugal for these.
  • LET'S DIG IN: Except you'll have to go to Portugal for these.

What's the photo above have to do with Arkansas? Nothing, except as a Saturday morning taste of my just-completed cruise up the west coast of Africa, with a stop in Lisbon on the way to journey's end in London. A guide on a city walking tour of Lisbon treated us to a pastel de nata, the custard pastry that's part of the city's morning ritual, along with strong coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice. One of each can still be had for $4 or so in the ubiquitous standup coffee bars.

For those who're interested, I've posted some other African photos on Facebook. 

Other than that, I'm back. Lindsey, David Ramsey, David Koon, Leslie Peacock and others were due some slack so I volunteered to get up this morning and get back on the blog.  That said, more thoughts on recent events:

* JUDICIAL POLITICS: I'm not inclined to rise in defense of Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, the disgraced former candidate for Court of Appeals. He'd long ago demonstrated his unsuitability for the bench and I expect the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission will finish his career with all deliberate and constitutional speed. But an article in the Democrat-Gazette today notes another nursing home case involving a home owned by Michael Morton pends in his court. Since Maggio has been more or less suspended by the Supreme Court, he's not likely to have any further impact on that case. Morton is the moneybags who's poured thousands in direct or PAC contributions to judicial and other races, one group of them going to PACs during a critical time when Maggio was preparing to reduce a $5.2 million jury verdict against a Morton nursing home to $1 million. (There's no evidence yet that Maggio was aware of the Morton contributions at the moment he ruled; they would be officially made and reported later.)

An e-mail I received from Maggio's attorney, Lauren White Hamilton, raises a fair point about guiltily associating Maggio's decisions with Morton on account of his political campaign contributions. It's a copy of an e-mail Hamilton sent to the Democrat-Gazette about  that newspaper's coverage.

Amid some technical points, the letter objects to the focus on nursing home contributions to Maggio and not the pattern of campaign giving to other judges. As yet, the Democrat-Gazette has not done a full examination of Morton's enormous contributions to a number of judicial races, including those of Karen Baker, Rhonda Wood and Robin Wynne for Supreme Court and notably huge money poured into races for circuit judge in Conway by, among others, Doralee Chandler, Troy Braswell and David Clark. They are part of a Republican- and business-lobby effort to stack the court with judges averse to ruling for plaintiffs in damage suits, whether against nursing homes or anyone else.

But if the nursing home influence is to be noted for Maggio, Hamilton writes, there are other legal financial influence peddlers worthy of note. Said the letter:

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette continues to arbitrarily report on only a handful of judges and campaigns while leaving others out of the fray. There has been absolutely no reporting on the other candidates receiving contributions from organizations, industries, and PACS. For example, one judicial candidate received $20,000.00 from Michael Morton and his entities as reported on his/her February 10, 2014 report and in addition to other well-known Arkansas and Texas trial lawyers as publicly identified in both the February 10, 2014 report and March 7, 2014 report. This is just one example. Another example is that $10,000.00 appears on another’s judicial candidate’s reported contributions in his/her March 17, 2014 report coming from a series of individuals from Pennsylvania. This same out of state money also appears in a judicial candidate’s March 7, 2014 report in the amount of $10,000.00 from Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check LLP, individual partners, and their spouses. Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check LLP have in the past partnered together with Nix Patterson Roach to represent the State of Utah as an example against Janssen Pharmaceuticals. Members of Nix Patterson Roach contributed $6,000.00 to one judicial candidate in the same March 7, 2014 report. Another candidate received $7,000.00 from various members of Nix Patterson Roach according to his March 17, 2014 report. All of this information is available publicly on the Secretary of State’s website if you will just look.

There has been zero reporting on these contributions and on their timing which occurred just one month before the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on this issue. There is nothing wrong with what these candidates did, but the standard should be the same for all judges at any level. Even a cursory review of contributions for all judicial candidates will reveal that the majority of contributions come from attorneys or law firms – all of which is perfectly legal and ethical. Until such time that Arkansas publicly finances judicial races or goes to an appointment system, judicial candidates will continue to receive contributions from trial lawyers associations, the health care industry, lawyers, and law firms.

I say amen to the concern about the influence of money in judicial races. And, yes, that includes the influence of trial lawyers, who spend huge sums, too. (Admitted: I cut them some slack for being advocates for injured parties as well as looking after their own self interest.) It's legal. It looks bad. But no judge is required to recuse from a case that involves someone who has made a contribution to his campaign. The nursing home spigot to select races this year — by all indications the result of backroom work by once publicly paid UCA lobbyist Gilbert Baker, a long-time paid shill for both the tort reform and Religious Right lobbies — is actually far more important in light of judges who are likely to be judges Jan. 1. Thanks to his "Tiger Droppings," we don't have to worry about Mike Maggio much longer. More pernicious to me than the big money influence is the orchestrated theme of the business lobby judicial candidates to brand themselves "conservative" (read Republican) judges. That sounds a lot like making promises of how they'd rule on a range of pending judicial issues. But more on that later.

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