Cozy Arkansas, judicial edition | Arkansas Blog

Monday, August 3, 2015

Cozy Arkansas, judicial edition

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2015 at 7:16 AM

JUSTICE KAREN BAKER: No degrees of separation between her and important figures in pending legal case.
  • JUSTICE KAREN BAKER: No degrees of separation between her and important figures in pending legal case.
In law — as in politics — Arkansas is marked by scant degrees of separation among the players.

A reader reminds me of this in an important pending case, the Faulkner County lawsuit in which a lawyer for the family of a woman who died in a Greenbrier nursing home is alleging that improper action involving nursing home owner Michael Morton of Fort Smith, former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway and then-Circuit Judge Mike Maggio led to a $4.2 million reduction in a unanimous jury award in 2013 for the family of a woman who died in agony after the home failed to act on a doctor's order that she be transferred to a hospital.

Maggio has pleaded guilty to bribery — taking campaign money in return for altering the verdict. Neither Morton nor Baker has been charged. Morton gave significant campaign contributions to Maggio and Baker helped guide Morton money to Maggio and other judicial candidates, but both say these were just normal political activities, not intended as quid for quo.

Here's another close association.

Jeff Hatfield of Little Rock is attorney for Michael Morton in the case over the Maggio verdict reduction.  Hatfield's wife, Allison, is law clerk for Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker.  Hatfield just received a 36.8 percent pay raise, to more than $69,000, after four years on the job. It was the biggest of the pay raises handed out in a controversial plan engineered by Baker in a year where other state employees got 1 percent raises.

Baker was on the ballot for re-election in 2014. In her first campaign filing, a time when the ability to raise money is important in discouraging other candidates, she reported $27,000 in contributions, with $20,000 of them from Michael Morton or nursing homes or corporation he controls, including the Greenbrier nursing home involved in the Maggio case.

In all, Baker, who was unopposed, raised $49,000, with another $20,000 coming from John Goodson and Goodson associates and out-of-state lawyers who participate in class action cases as Goodson does. Goodson's wife, Justice Courtney Goodson, has been an ally with Baker in the bloc that has taken over administrative control of the Supreme Court from Chief Justice Jim Hannah, who told staff Friday that he'd be retiring Sept. 1 for health reasons. Hannah has also informed Gov. Asa Hutchinson of the decision. Hutchinson will appoint someone to serve though the end of 2016. Goodson is expected to run to succeed Hannah.

Goodson also lined up some of the same contributors to help pay off debts of Supreme Court Justice Jo Hart's campaign expenses. She, too, is part of the controlling administrative bloc.

New Justice Rhonda Wood got $46,000 in her initial round of fund-raising in 2014 from Michael Morton and PACs financed by Morton. She, too, was unopposed and she, too, has been part of the bloc opposing Hannah on both administrative and the hot question of who should hear the same-sex marriage case.

It is, as I often said to reporters delving into Clinton connections, a small, friendly state with unavoidably close connections among the relatively small number of people who are important in politics and law.

PS — One more of those connections. Hatfield is the sister of Leslie Fisken, the one member of the now-defunct Little Rock School Board who supported the state takeover. That takeover is the subject of a lawsuit. That suit — including a request for a injunction to delay the takeover pending trial — was halted by an unsigned Supreme Court order with the trial underway.

Justices, of course, would never be influenced by their law clerks. But money is another matter. When and if the Maggio case reaches the Arkansas Supreme Court, some judges will have some decisions to make about whether they should hear the case. 

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