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Talk heats up between rivals for high court

Candidates for justice spar over ethics, vacation time by Seth Blomeley | September 26, 2010 at 5:04 a.m.

— A circuit judge and an appellate court judge are vying for one of the seven spots on the state’s highest court, where justices are elected for eight-year terms and are paid $145,204 a year.

The circuit judge says the appellate judge doesn’t work enough.

The appellate judge’s campaign says the circuit judge has ethical problems.

Court of Appeals Judge Karen Baker of Clinton and Circuit Judge Tim Fox of Little Rock are seeking Position 6 on the Arkansas Supreme Court in the Nov. 2 election.

“It’s a question of qualifications,” Baker said Thursday. “I’ve been [on the bench] for 16 years. That’s longerthan my opponent. This is my 10th year on the appellate court. I’m not running for trial judge. I’m running for a position on the appellate court. I’m the only candidate that has experience in doing that.”

Fox has cited his eight years as a circuit judge trying difficult cases, often of statewide significance, in the 6th Judicial District, which includes Perry and Pulaski counties.

He said the appellate courts don’t work enough and he wants to change that.

“Sometimes it takes years for cases to be appealed,” Fox said Friday. “Despite that lag time, appellate judges give themselves at least 10 weeksof paid vacation every year while citizens are waiting for their cases to be heard. My opponent gives her entire staff that much time off at taxpayer expense. Common sense says that’s excessive.”

Fox said he couldn’t change the Supreme Court’s work schedule “single-handedly” but would “work to instill a work ethic in the court.” He said he hasn’t checked records at the Court of Appeals to verify that Baker’s staff gets 10 weeks off each year but he said that’s his understanding.

Baker said she hasn’t added up all the time the appellate courts are in recess. She said there is a six-week recess during the summer plus Christmas holidays, Thanksgiving week and spring break. She said she typically spends part of that time at judicial education conferences. She said court staff works during that time but she didn’t know thecourt’s policy on how many days employees get off.

She said typical cases before the Court of Appeals take a few weeks to be decided.

Fox has also said he would commute to the Justice Building five days a week for court work.

He’s criticized Baker for saying she would continue to live in Clinton and commute two or three days a week to Little Rock and work at home the rest of the time like she currently does on the Court of Appeals.

Fox has said a justice needs to go to work every day but Baker has said the work can also be done from home.

The Nov. 2 election is a runoff election for nonpartisan judicial races in Arkansas. In the May 18 election, Baker captured 48.4 percent of the vote; Fox, 36.8 percent; and Evelyn Moorehead of Little Rock, 14.9 percent.

Baker said Moorehead has endorsed her. Moorehead didn’t immediately return a message Friday.

Baker said she’s confident her lead will hold.

“I think everything is going great,” she said. “We’ve continued to work hard and meet as many people as we can across the state.”

But Fox says, “It’s a brand new election.”

He said he expects twice as many people will vote Nov. 2 as voted May 18.

He also pointed out that he’s continued to raise more money than her.

Through August, Fox has raised $291,000 and lent his campaign $100,000. Baker has raised $42,000 and lent her campaign $245,000.

“It says for any number of reasons, folks aren’t contributing to her campaign,” Fox said. “She’s self-financing the election.”

Baker attributes her “fundraising deficit” to her not living in Little Rock. She said she doesn’t have much interaction with attorneys as an appeals-court judge as Fox does as a trial-court judge.

Baker’s campaign last week criticized Fox for a mailer his campaign sent out in May.

The mailer said, “The Republican Party of Arkansas announces the following preferred candidate ... Tim Fox.” The mailer also featured the GOP elephant logo.

Baker said that judicial canons “specifically say that a judicial candidate will not seek, accept or use an endorsement of a political party. I don’t know if he accepted it, but if your campaign promotes it, then I think you are using it.”

Her campaign consultant, Chris Kell, said, “Using a partisan endorsement is a violation. Even more, it was a lie. The [party] never endorsed him, never gave him permission to use their logo so it isan ethical problem on two fronts.”

Fox said he regretted the flier.

“I did not authorize that language or those images, period,” he said. “It’s one of those lesson-learned things. Now, nothing goes out that I don’t personally approve.”

Fox said the flier isn’t a violation of judicial canons because it doesn’t say the GOP endorsed him. He said being a “preferred candidate” isn’t the same as an endorsement.

Katherine Vasilos, a state GOP spokesman, said the party’s executive committee before the May 18 election recommended Fox as its preferred candidate but has decided not to recommend a candidate in the race for the Nov. 2 election.

Last week, David Stewart, executive director of the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, said Baker’s accepting $250 from the Van Buren County Republican Party likely violates judicial canons, although the rules don’t specifically ban such contributions and the commission hasn’t madesuch a ruling.

Fox declined to say whether he thought Baker’s contribution from the GOP was a violation but said he doesn’t accept money from political parties.

Baker said there was nothing wrong with her receiving that money from the GOP in her home county and that the Democratic Party in her county also contributed to her campaign. That contribution will show up on Baker’s next report, Kell said.

Baker, 47, graduated from Clinton High School and a received a bachelor’s degree from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She worked as a public defender before being appointed by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker as a circuit judge in 1995 in the 20thJudicial District of Searcy, Van Buren and Faulkner counties. She was elected to that district in 1996 and elected to the Court of Appeals in 2000.

Fox, 53, graduated from Hall High School in Little Rock and received a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College in Conway and a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He previously worked in private practice, as assistant city attorney in North Little Rock, and as a prosecutor in North Little Rock District Court. He was elected circuit judge in 2002.

The winner will replace Justice Ron Sheffield, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe to succeed Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber, who retired. Sheffield is the only black member of the court.

There are six men and one woman on the Supreme Court. The woman, Justice Elana Wills of Little Rock, didn’t seek election this year. She will be replaced by another woman, Court of Appeals Judge Courtney Henry of Fayetteville, who was elected in May.

Arkansas, Pages 15 on 09/26/2010

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