Chief Justice Jim Hannah plans early retirement | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Chief Justice Jim Hannah plans early retirement

Posted By on Sat, Aug 1, 2015 at 6:58 AM

click to enlarge CHIEF JUSTICE JIM HANNAH: Set to retire.
  • CHIEF JUSTICE JIM HANNAH: Set to retire.
Reliable sources say that Chief Justice Jim Hannah will retire Sept. 1, on account of health problems that have slowed him in recent weeks.

I was unable to reach the judge in phone calls this evening. The Supreme Court is in its customary summer recess, when justices are rarely in chambers. Hannah is vacationing with his family, but friends have learned of his decision.

Hannah, previously a trial court judge, joined the Supreme Court in 2001 and became chief justice in 2005. His current term expires at the end of 2016. His seat will be on the ballot next year, but Hannah wasn't expected to run because he turns 70 before the term ends. Under current law, a judge who is elected to another term after turning 70 forfeits judicial retirement. That law is under challenge in a pending lawsuit, but its future, including when it might be decided, is uncertain. Justice Paul Danielson has already announced he'll retire and not seek another term in 2016 because of the law.

Hannah is soft-spoken, if a strong advocate for his legal views with sharp political and people skills that elevated him to the state's highest court. He has, however, seen the chief justice's traditional administrative prerogatives usurped by what is now a functioning controlling administrative bloc that typically includes Justices Courtney Goodson, Jo Hart, Karen Baker and Rhonda Wood. The infighting blocked his choice for clerk of the Supreme Court after the retirement of Les Steen. That bloc also  recently pushed through some big pay raises for their staff over the objections of Hannah and Danielson, who favored a fairer apportionment of available money among all staff. One of Baker's clerks, for example, got a 36 percent raise. Most state employees got 1 percent raises this year. Hannah also objected to this bloc's scheming to change which justices voted on the same-sex marriage case, maneuvers that prompted Hannah to recuse from a derivative case that he called a delaying tactic. Despite being expedited, the Supreme Court never issued a decision in the case in eight months and then dismissed it  without an opinion after the U.S. Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson will appoint someone to the seat until the 2016 election, where Courtney Goodson now has clear sailing for her plans to run for chief justice. She hasn't announced, but has been making plans for months. No one else has indicated a public intention to make the race.

Many fear Hutchinson will appoint Circuit Judge Shawn Womack, the  former Republican senator from Mountain Home, to chief justice spot in the interim Womack is best known for his laughable statement that judges were entitled to a huge pay raise because of equal protection with judges in other states. He's also a dedicated anti-gay figure who wanted to recrininalize homosexual acts and prevent gay people from adopting children, much less marrying. Hutchinson appointed Womack among a threesome of Republicans that delivered — over Hannah's objections — a vote in a procedural case on who should hear the same-sex marriage case. Hutchinson's Republican appointees said Republican Justice Rhonda Wood should get the vote, not the special justice who'd been appointed to the case in 2014 by Gov. Mike Beebe. The title of chief justice would aid Womack in his race for retiring Justice Danielson's seat. He currently has no announced opposition and has been making frequent public appearances with Republican politicians to make it clear to voters where his allegiances lie.

Judges nominally run as nonpartisan candidates, but the practice of Womack, Wood and others in recent years has been to make partisan proclivities clear in a state that has grown increasingly Republican. Wood, for example, used to appear together with her Conway friend, Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, who planned a state court of appeals race before he got caught up in a bribery scandal. It involved campaign contributions from the nursing home lobby also arranged by Gilbert Baker.

Hannah was a centrist, I think it safe to say. He undoubtedly delivered some decisions the business lobby didn't like, but he was no ideologue. The court is turning rapidly in the lobby's direction. With a relatively modest expenditure of money in a couple of key races and circumstances such as the retirement age, the court seems on the verge of control by the business lobby and, worse, the Republican legislative preference of the day. Gilbert Baker's direction of big nursing home money to Rhonda Wood was unseemly, but still small change by, say, Texas standards. The same for the dark money that propelled Robin Wynne with a smear campaign against Tim Cullen. Also: If Goodson is elected chief justice, that will give Hutchinson yet another court seat to fill with a Republican for two years before her seat is filled by election.

The people of Arkansas will miss Jim Hannah. He might not miss the current court.

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