Law licenses for at least four candidates in judicial districts were suspended as of Thursday morning for failure to pay their annual attorney-licensing fees, according to a search of Arkansas Supreme Court clerk’s office records.
The license-renewal fee for two sitting circuit judges seeking re-election, one prosecuting attorney seeking re-election and one lawyer challenging an incumbent for a circuit judge position were not paid by the early March deadline to make the annual payment.
The failures to pay caused a temporary license suspension that could interfere with the lawyers’ bids for elected office under Arkansas law, which requires that circuit court candidates have a valid license and practice law for six consecutive years before they file for office and that prosecuting attorney candidates have a valid license and practice for four years.
Alex Reed, a spokesman for the Arkansas secretary of state’s office, said he has received several calls about the candidates’ status.
“Someone would have to file a challenge in court,” Reed said. “We do not have the power to disqualify or to determine whether a candidate is qualified to run for office. That power rests with the judiciary.”
As of Thursday night, no lawsuits had been filed challenging the qualifications of the four candidates.
The licenses for 19th Judicial District-East Circuit Judge Gerald Kent Crow, 19th Judicial District-West Circuit Judge Tom Smith and Helena-West Helena lawyer Jeanette Whatley, who is seeking a 1st Judicial District Circuit Court seat, were listed as suspended as of March 8, according to the Arkansas Judiciary Department’s records.
Second Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington paid the overdue license fee online Thursday afternoon after being contacted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was listed in good standing by close of business Thursday.
A staff member in Ellington’s office said the late payment was an oversight. A check had been written out for the fee but the envelope had been misplaced on someone’s desk, he added.
The administrative suspensions happened about the same time as a March 10 lawsuit was filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court challenging the qualifications of another judicial candidate because of a previous suspension of her Arkansas law license.
The lawsuit filed by Kristen Hulse alleged that Arkansas Department of Education attorney Valerie Thompson Bailey, who filed to run against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox, did not meet the constitutional requirement that judges must be licensed attorneys who have continuously practiced law for six years before taking office.
A special, appointed judge, John Cole, heard the lawsuit challenging Bailey and ruled that she was not qualified to run for office.
Bailey’s attorneys asked Cole to distinguish between an administrative and disciplinary suspension, but the judge said, “A suspension is a suspension is a suspension.” Bailey’s license was suspended in 2002, the suspension was stayed in 2005, but Bailey’s license was not reinstated until 2011. Bailey’s license was suspended because she failed to complete required annual training.
Bailey has said she will appeal the decision, although any appeal would not help her to appear on the May 20 ballot, which has already been approved.
Several law professors at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville were unavailable for comment Thursday because of the schools’ coming spring break.
Art English, a professor emeritus of political science at the UALR who has studied the Arkansas Constitution, said the two situations - the temporary suspensions because of late payment and the longer suspension over education requirements - seemed fundamentally different under Amendment 80 to the Arkansas Constitution, which set out the rules for judicial candidates and consolidated the judiciary under the authority of the Supreme Court.
“They made what I think would be considered a substantial oversight by not paying on time, but I think the constitution is fairly clear,” English said. “It says six years [is required] to qualify. In [Bailey’s] case, it would seem there was a substantial gap in the middle of her six years. The other people have maintained their licenses for the requisite times; they just didn’t pay their admission to the bar.”
Under the Supreme Court rules for the Arkansas bar, failure to pay annual fees can result in a temporary suspension until those fees and late fines are paid. If the fee is not paid for three years, the attorney must apply for reinstatement to the bar, which stays on the attorney’s record.
The annual license fee varies depending on when an lawyer first passes the Arkansas Bar Exam. Lawyers with three or more years of experience pay $200, while newer lawyers pay $125. Late fees are $100 and $65 respectively.
Denise Parks, the office manager in the Supreme Court clerk’s office, said the lawyers can pay the license fee between Jan. 1 and March 1 each year. This year, March 1 fell on a Saturday so the deadline was extended to March 3. Inclement weather early that week pushed the deadline back to March 5.
Under the licensing rules, suspensions for late payment are removed from the lawyers’ records upon payment as long as they’re paid in less than three years.
Liberal blogger and lawyer Matt Campbell posted on his website about a Faulkner County lawyer running for office, Angela Byrd, who was facing the same problem. He said that because of weather-related problems, Byrd did not make the renewal payment deadline, but was working to clear up the matter.
A computer screen shot of her license status Tuesday showed Byrd’s license was suspended, but a search Thursday showed no record of the action once the payment had been processed.
“It would be interesting to see what happened if anybody challenged them in court,” English said. “Then again, they could just pay the fee and avert such a problem all together.”