A Little Rock lawyer is not qualified to run for a Pulaski County circuit judgeship, a specially appointed judge ruled on Wednesday after deciding that there is no difference between having a law license suspended for an administrative violation and a license suspension for misconduct.
“A suspension is a suspension is suspension,” said Judge John Cole. “It doesn’t matter if it’s administrative or disciplinary.”
Attorneys for Valerie Thompson Bailey asked Cole to distinguish between the two and pronounce her a qualified candidate for judicial office so she could challenge incumbent Tim Fox, 56, in the May 20 election.
Cole, a retired circuit judge from Sheridan who was appointed after all of the Pulaski County circuit judges recused at Bailey’s request, rejected her request to stay his decision pending any appeal because he is confident he’s made the right decision.
The issue of Bailey’s credentials was in court because her candidacy had been disputed in a lawsuit by a voter, Kristen Hulse, described by her lawyers as a concerned citizen with no connection to Fox.
Neither Bailey nor Hulse testified Wednesday.
Hulse’s attorneys, Jeff Priebe and Allison Allred, told the judge that lawyers can be suspended for different reasons but the reasons don’t matter. There’s no case law or court rules that recognize any difference, Priebe said.
“That suspension is the same no matter where it comes from,” Priebe told the judge. “The effect is the same - you cannot practice law in the state of Arkansas. You are either licensed or you are not.”
The suit contended that Bailey’s law license had not been reinstated in time for her to meet a constitutional requirement that Arkansas judges be licensed for six years before taking office. Her license was reinstated in November 2011, but to take office Jan. 1, 2015, to start the next six-year judicial term, she should have been reinstated by January 2009, the suit said.
Cole, tasked to decide the case by the Arkansas Supreme Court, agreed that Bailey did not meet the criteria, describing the case as “simple, yet fully complex.”
He said authors of Amendment 80 of the Arkansas Constitution certainly intended judicial candidates to be licensed to practice law for six years before taking office. The amendment, approved by voters in 2000, consolidated the state judiciary under the authority of the state Supreme Court.
Bailey has said she accepted the administrative sanction, which lasted the better part of nine years, because she lived out of state for a time and had focused on raising her children.
Bailey’s lawyers, Gray Turner and Nicki Nicolo, argued that the “plain language” of Amendment 80 does not specifically state a judge must have been actively practicing law for six years before taking office. Bailey’s license has never been lost; she’s always had possession of it, Nicolo told the judge.
If Bailey’s suspension worked the way her opponents claimed, she would have to be readmitted to the state bar and would have been assigned a new bar number, Nicolo argued. But Bailey was merely reinstated after she paid her dues and fines, the attorney told the judge.
“There is a difference between an administrative suspension and a disciplinary suspension,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they took her license. She has always had it.”